Tucked on the south side of Seventh Street between Oak and Walnut Streets is a little church with a big history.
Collingwood’s Heritage Community Church has been around for well over 100 years. It has a current congregation of approximately 50 members — many of whom have been a part of the church since the day they were born.
“Our parents, our grandparents and their parents,” said Sylvia Wilson. Sylvia and her sister, Carolynn, are the current directors of the church. “It’s a safe zone. It’s welcoming, comforting and inclusive.”
“It feels like coming home,” added Carolynn.
In the late 1700s, freedom seekers, fugitives and freed Black men and women came from the United States to settle in Canada. At the time, American ministers would cross the border to preach to Canadian congregations, but in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law passed, allowing American bounty hunters to capture Black people — enslaved or free — and return them to the United States.
“There were big settlements and Black communities right along the border, making it easier to get snatched. So people would head further north to be safer,” explained Sylvia.
Subsequently, Collingwood and Owen Sound became two of the northern terminals on the Underground Railroad.
In 1856, 19 African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches in Ontario obtained a charter from King George V to become British Methodist Episcopal (BME), protecting them from American interference.
In 1870, the Black community in Collingwood — and supportive white neighbours — collectively raised $15 to purchase the property on Seventh Street with the purpose of building a church.
The original church burned down, but a second one was built in the same spot in the 1920s. The current church was rebuilt once more in 1974 and incorporated as the Heritage Community Church, and has undergone additional renovations in the last five years.
“But it’s not just the church, it’s the community that keeps us coming back,” said Sylvia.
Carolynn and Sylvia celebrate seven generations of family in Collingwood and the surrounding area, and they have fond memories of growing up in the community.
“In the early days, I think [the church] is what united families,” said Sylvia.
“It was part of the journey,” Carolynn said. “Anytime anyone came to Canada, it was a church or a school. That was the first thing they would build after their homes.”
Carolynn and Sylvia are also the owners and operators of the Sheffield Park Black History Museum, located in Clarksburg. The museum was founded by their uncle, Howard Sheffield, who was known in the area as a man of faith and Collingwood’s best-known Black historian.
“The church was here for the community, but Uncle Howie started the museum in honour of our family name, to recognize the history of the Blacks in this area and in Canada,” said Sylvia.
Jane Cooper Wilson, another well-known local historian, also grew up attending the church, following multiple generations before her. She grew up a block away from Carolynn and Sylvia, and their grandmothers were half-sisters.
“There has always been an argument between the Coopers and the Sheffields for who’s family arrived first,” laughed Cooper Wilson. “We have been around a long, long time.”
All three women have a passion for history, and although their approach is different — Carolynn and Sylvia are tied closer to the church and museum while Cooper Wilson is known for her advocacy and restoration, and is a sitting member of the Ontario Historical Society — they all have one goal in mind: to keep the history of their ancestors alive.
Sylvia fondly recalls stories her grandmother would tell her, of the days when the church would throw an annual “fowl dinner.” The community would gather for a feast of everything with feathers, setting up tables on the lawn outside and listening to live performances.
Cooper Wilson remembers riding along with the milkman from Potts Dairy, helping him do his rounds around town before he dropped her off safely at home.
“There was so much caring and kindness, everyone knew everyone back then,” said Carolynn. “That’s what the community was in those days. It wasn’t black and white, it was a community.”
“The community is changing,” said Sylvia. “People don’t understand each other anymore, they don’t have that connection like we did.”
That’s why all three women think continuing education is so important.
“Whatever I learn, I try to use it to enlighten not only people of colour, but also the collective cultures,” said Cooper Wilson. “Now it is even more crucial than it ever was before that our children are given the pride in their ancestors' journey.”
Along with fond memories, Cooper Wilson remembers how difficult it was.
For example, Cooper Wilson said all mothers will remember the day they take their child to school for the first time. After dropping them off, the mothers then head home, maybe shedding a tear because “their baby is growing up.”
“With Black mothers, it’s different,” said Cooper Wilson. “We know once they set foot out of the little protective circle of the village, it’s a different world out there. That’s why there is that saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ It’s because all of the neighbours stepped up and took care of all of us, together.”
Cooper Wilson said now it’s more important than ever to re-instil that sense of community.
“It’s always the young people who are the movers and shakers, but it’s up to us older ones to help them understand that you can’t be bulls in a china shop,” said Cooper Wilson. “History will repeat itself if we do not learn. We must stick together.”
“We have a good rapport in Collingwood and the area, but we cannot become complacent,” she continued.
Carolynn and Sylvia agree that it is no time to be complacent, but their concern lies in the fact that the youth of today are getting away from the church. But they know that the community it creates will always remain.
“The support for us is still here,” said Carolynn. “People may have married and moved away, you may not see them every Sunday sitting on a pew, but they are always welcome. And it will always feel like home.”
“It’s not just Black history, it’s everybody’s history. When we’re gone, somebody has to keep it going,” added Sylvia.
The church reopened on July 12, and while COVID still limits the number of community events Sylvia, Carolynn and the rest of the congregation can attend, they are all excited for the day when the church is back in full swing.
“We’re still labelled in some places as the little coloured church on Seventh Street, but if people came and looked they’d see, we are and have always been multicultural,” Sylvia said. “It’s the community.”