Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church crowdfunding campaign aims to save structure

A township in southern Ontario is scrambling to raise funds to save a church built in the 1840s by some of Canada's earliest black settlers.

Township of Oro-Medonte launches fundraising campaign to save church built by black settlers in late 1840's

The Oro African Methodist Church is in bad shape. The roof is in danger of collapsing and the building's siding has been stripped until funds for repairs can be raised. (Oro African Methodist Church/Facebook)

About a two-hour drive north of Toronto, in the small township of Oro-Medonte, sits a little-known but significant part of Canadian history.

The Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in the late 1840's by some of Canada's earliest black settlers.

"That church was the hub," said local historian Janie Cooper-Wilson.

It is crucial this is preserved, as it has a tremendous impact on the collective history of Canada.— Janie Cooper-Wilson, local historian

"It doesn't matter what black community you go to, a church is at the centre of those communities. That's all we had."

Cooper-Wilson's grandparents were married in the church. Her grandfather three generations back was a soldier in Captain Runchey's Company of Coloured Men — an all-black militia that fought in the War of 1812. Those soldiers were the first known blacks to settle in the Upper Canada area.

"Oro-Medonte was the first place in the British empire that people were given grants of land regardless of ethnic background," said Mayor Harry Hughes.

Structure crumbling

The church has largely been kept standing through funds from Simcoe County, special grants and local volunteers, allowing the town to open the building for tours and visitors.

But the building is in desperate need of repairs.

This photo shows the church before the siding was stripped off in 2013. (Oro African Methodist Church/Facebook)

An assessment in 2013 projected $140,000 worth of repairs would be needed to save the building, and the addition of heavy snow piled on the roof means it's in danger of collapsing at any time.

So the township took matters into its own hands — literally — by knocking on doors and appealing for donations. More than $8,000 has been raised in the past six months, and on Thursday the township launched a crowd-funding campaign.

Hughes said watching the CBC mini-series The Book of Negroes inspired him and others to start thinking about how to save the church.

"The show made me realize there was a big interest in a history that spreads way beyond the boundaries of Canada," he said.

Cooper-Wilson, who has spent many years helping preserve the church, hopes the township will be able to raise enough money to keep this piece of history alive not just for the people of Oro-Medonte, but the rest of the country.

"It is crucial this is preserved, as it has a tremendous impact on the collective history of Canada."