There’s a gap in the heart of the village of Port Sydney, in Muskoka, north of Toronto. The tiny community boasts a general store, a restaurant and a beautiful beach, as well as a historic dam and a fine old meeting hall. In summer its population swells with tourists, and in the off-season, it’s a sleepy little hamlet known for its community spirit and old-fashioned winter carnival. But there’s something missing.
Opposite the general store, on the shores of Mary Lake, a red brick rectory masks the vacant lot where Muskoka’s oldest church once stood. On the morning of July 5, Christ Church Anglican, an exquisite and beloved little building of hand-hewn pine, burned to the ground, leaving nothing but the lych gate and a few tombstones.
Port Sydney made the national newspapers, and the faces of the grief-stricken congregation appeared on television the following Sunday as they worshiped in the community hall, amid a flurry of reporters and broadcasters.
Initially, it was suspected that faulty wiring was the cause of the blaze, but in September, Ontario Provincial Police charged a 17-year-old Port Sydney boy with setting the fire. While the boy’s identity is protected under the Young Offenders’ Act, his name is no secret in the village. Shortly after the teenager was taken into custody, the local Huntsville Forester printed two letters of apology from the boy’s parents, signed: “Mother and father of a young offender.”
The mother’s letter detailed the boy’s troubled background and his experience being bullied at school. She described making the decision to turn him in.
“I have written all this not as an excuse, because there can be no justification for such terrible things, but in the hope that some may understand a little of his life,” she wrote. “To my extreme surprise, people who know have been genuinely sincere, sympathetic and supportive. I thank you all and I apologize to all. I am so, so sorry.”
The father, in his letter, describes his shock and sorrow, ending with the hope that ‘God will see to it that some good comes of it.’
Five months later, the story is old news, but its effect on the community, the boy and his family will be felt for a long time.
The good that comes of devastation is most often seen in the strength shown by its survivors, for grievous losses have been suffered on all sides. A single act has shattered a family and reduced a church to ashes, but the signs of renewal are not difficult to find.
“The congregation has been amazing,” said Rev. Marguerite Rea, the rector. “The fire was at 3 a.m., and at 2 p.m. on the same day they went ahead with their strawberry tea at the community hall.” Sympathy and support have poured in from across the country, Ms Rea said. The church was insured, and money has been raised through a dinner and auction in August and an ongoing “Phoenix fund.” Rebuilding plans are well under way.
“Don’t forget we’re a ‘sea of grey’,” said church warden Norm Gurr. “The majority comes from an era when life wasn’t quite as easy as it is now — you made do with what you had, and it just came naturally to march on, to make the best of it.”
Charles Wilson, a 16-year-old parishioner, said he doesn’t blame the teenager, who has been in custody since September.
“I’m trying to follow the example of Christ,” he said. “You forgive — sometimes it’s difficult, and you feel sorry for the person who did it.”
Ms Rea noted that a fair bit of time passed between the fire and the news that the boy had turned himself in. “If he’d been found immediately, there would have been a lot of anger expressed,” she said. “But people realize he’s a troubled boy and they have compassion.” The public apology in the paper helped, Mr. Gurr said. “That took courage.”
The boy’s father said in an interview that he and his wife needed a way to tell the community that they were taking responsibility as parents. “I’ve had people stop me in the street, even people in court, telling me how sorry they were,” he said.
Five months later, the man’s grief is still palpable. “Our son really pulled the wool over our eyes,” he said. “We thought there was light at the end of the tunnel, that things were getting better.”
He described sitting in the family van with the boy at the OPP headquarters, waiting to meet an officer to “clear his name” after his son swore he was not involved, in spite of rumours to the contrary. He used his cell-phone to check in with his wife, who told him that she’d just found evidence in the teenager’s bedroom closet that pointed to the truth. When confronted, the boy confessed.
“I went into shock,” the father said. “It was like being shot.” He paced the parking lot for what seemed like hours, then made a decision. “Turning my son in was the hardest thing I ever did,” he said.
After time spent in a crowded holding facility near Toronto, the boy was transferred to a youth centre even further away. His family has been visiting regularly.
“He’s showing profound remorse now,” his father said.
“He’s sorry for the anguish he’s caused us as a family. A lot of times I feel an incredible sense of loss. Even though I still have hope for him and I want to support him, there’s a sense that he’s died.” While not a church-goer, he claims a strong faith. “Where was God in this? Right there with us.”
The congregation of Christ Church continues to worship in the community hall, and to plan for a new church.
“Sometimes you have to go through a time of terrible pain to find out where God really is,” Marguerite Rea said. “We’re set up in the hall, and we try to make it as much like a church as possible — and you can feel the Holy Spirit there. It’s astounding and comforting.”
Back in the September, the rector was asked how it was possible to forgive after such a devastating loss. “We’re Christians,” she said. “It’s what we do.” Mel Malton is a writer from Huntsville, Ont.