At 3:30 p.m. on Christmas Day, 1927, 42 people gathered for the first public service in St. Athanasius' Chapel on the Fourth Concession (now Westmount Drive). The Rev. J.R.S. Boyd, Rector of St. James' Anglican Church conducted the service.
Leading up to this momentous event, long before 1927, there had been a Sunday School in the West Ward of Orillia that had been established in 1908. It was started in a house on the corner of Mary & McKenzie Streets under the supervision of Dr. C.H. Hale, Superintendent of St. James' Sunday School from 1899-1913. This was a point in time when Orillia was experiencing unprecedented growth, and its Anglican community wished to reach out to the new areas of town. (At the same time another mission Sunday School began in the South Ward, which later grew into our sister church, St. David's.)
Our story dates back even further to 1832 when the Rowe family came over from England to settle at Bass Lake. Basil Rowe, whose farm included the land that is now the Provincial Park, was a stalwart Churchman and a lay member of Synod for thirty years. He was a faithful giver of his tithe (giving a tenth of all he had to God's work), and would even bring every tenth load of wood into town for the poor.
He had to two sons and three daughters; two of whom, Elizabeth and Caroline, came in to town and lived a very secluded life at the top of Tucker's Hill on Coldwater Road. They had a family chapel built for themselves in 1908 which they dedicated to St. Athanasius, but was known to many local citizens as "Little Jimmy", in reference to St. James'. Various Anglican priests came and ministered in their chapel, including those from Price's Corners and the Cowley Fathers in Bracebridge.
In 1927, Miss Elizabeth Rowe died and left the chapel to the Church of England in Canada for use as a Mission, with the understanding that it would continue to be known as St. Athanasius'. Although some doubt was expressed about the appropriateness of doing this, partly due to the enthusiasm of some laymen of St. James, the gift was accepted and the chapel was loaded onto rollers and towed by horses down the Westmount Drive hill to its present site.
Attendance varied between 23 and 87 during the first seven months of the mission, which was quite good considering the chapel then consisted only of that part of the church building which is now the Chancel (Choir and Sanctuary).
In 1928, the chapel was enlarged considerably with the addition of what is now the Nave, or the main part of the church proper, and 160 people attended the opening service on November 4th.
Throughout the war years, church services were carried on through the dedication of its members, notably Mr. Cresswell, a lay reader who conducted services in the absence of full time clergy.
In 1950, the entire building was raised by the height of three courses of cement blocks, and many other improvements were made in order to make the basement useful for meetings and for the Sunday School.
During this time it is said that the Rev. Canon A.G. Emmett mortgaged his own home to finance many of these improvements. Church members and St. James' Church itself contributed significantly to this project as well.
During 1955, St. Athanasius' in the West Ward and St. David's in the South Ward separated from St. James' Parish and combined to form the Parish of Orillia South, which is our present status today. The congregation of St. Athanasius has continued to step forward in faith, and we thank God for His many blessings.
Over the years since, our little church has seen many changes and has had several opportunities for celebration. Many of these are detailed in the following list.
1958: The present Narthex (entryway) was added, providing additional seating in the Nave. (An area at the back of the main part of the church had previously been set aside for the robing of clergy, organists and choir, as well as for the storage of church vestments.) The basement was further upgraded at this time as well.
1959: The Parish Hall was constructed, with the men of the parish building the kitchen, furnace and storage room, as well as the connecting vestibule. The right Rev. F.H. Wilkinson, bishop of Toronto, dedicated the hall on October 11, 1959.
1962: On December 16th, at 11:15am, a 35th Anniversary service was held at which all of the organizations and congregation that had supported the growth of the church were recognized. The hope and prayer of the congregation at that time was for St. Athanasius' to become a self supporting parish built around a large fellowship of prayer, witness and well instructed, dedicated and regularly worshipping Christians.
1977: St. Athanasius' marked its 50th anniversary with a SALT (Share and Learning Together) weekend, a special Harvest Thanksgiving Service, teen programmes, an Outreach programme, choir reunion, memorial service and a Jubilee dinner held in November at the Sundial restaurant.
1985: Major restorative work was done to the interior of the church including: new oak wainscoting, oak trim, restored ceiling in the Chancel, refinished wood windows in the Sanctuary, drop ceiling in the Narthex, carpeted kneelers and new carpet throughout the church.
1987: In this year the parish hall was refurbished with a new drop ceiling and window coverings installed.
1987 also marked our 60th anniversary. The Parish held a Dinner and Dance at Hotel Orillia on December 4th and a Celebration Breakfast organized by the Youth Group took place on December 5thfollowed by an Open house in the afternoon. A Service of thanksgiving took place on the 6th at 7:30pm with Bishop Taylor Pryce officiating, followed by a reception in the hall.
1989: On July 25th a Sesqui-Centennial Service was held at 8:30 p.m. to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. The "Sesqui Cross" left St. James Church at 8pm and was passed to parishioners of St. A's on Mississauga Street across from the hospital. It was then carried to St. Athanasius' where a service was held.
On October 15th many members of St. A's congregation travelled by bus to the Skydome in Toronto for the Diocesan Sesqui-Centennial Service.
1989-1991: the congregation purchased a new organ, and the church exterior was given a facelift. This included exterior landscaping, new sidewalk to the hall, new cross for the exterior of the hall and new doors for the hall as well.
In the late 1990's, St. Athanasius' became home to another worshipping community, the Holy Cross Lutheran Mission. Their presence has helped enhance our parish life significantly, and joint services and choirs are an enjoyable aspect of this relationship. Their contributions to our church community have also been noticeable in the rejuvenation of the nursery and during a variety of Spring work bees.
From the years 1997 through till 2002, parishioners have undertaken many renovations and upgrades around the church through the generous donations of time, energy and money. These include: -roof supports in the Nave -renovation and expansion of existing kitchen -addition of new washrooms and storage areas -new windows and shades in the hall -landscaping and flower gardens -"skunk proofing" of the hall -entire exterior and interior of building painted. In the Spring of 2000, St. Athanasius' entered into the new millennium with a new mission, providing breakfast for students of Mount Slaven Public School who might otherwise go without. The main tenet of the "Breakfast for Learning" programme is that children learn more readily if they are well nourished, and through the grace of God we have found the resources to help our community in this manner. This initiative continued until Mount Slaven was closed by the school board in 2009. The church was made wheelchair accessible in 2008.