Priest helps bring hope to town

The Rev. Eileen Steele and the Beecroft brothers stand in front of the partially collapsed building.
The Rev. Eileen Steele (centre) with brothers Leonard and Robin Beecroft in front of their partially demolished home.
 on November 29, 2023

Food, funds given after building collapses

In a remarkable display of community spirit and resilience, the people of Penetanguishene, a town of about 10,000 on the southern tip of Georgian Bay, rallied together this fall after a downtown building collapsed.

At around 3 a.m. on Sept. 7, two walls of the building at 78 Main St. suddenly crumbled as its residents slept, displacing 35 people and several businesses from adjacent buildings. Thankfully, nobody was seriously hurt.

The Rev. Eileen Steele, incumbent of the Parish of Penetanguishene, was on hand in the immediate aftermath of the collapse as the town’s residents began to assess the damage and its affects. She says it didn’t take long for people to start asking where they could donate money and goods to help their displaced neighbours.

“That’s when the idea actually came to me – there were so many points of contact and people wanting to help, I thought we need to do something together as a community and pull it all together so that everybody knows where to donate, how to donate and exactly what we need,” she says.

Soon, a coalition of local business owners and support agencies banded together to form a group called Penetanguishene Stands Together. Along with the Rotary Club, the Lions Club and the Salvation Army, Ms. Steele was joined in her efforts by local business owners Jill St. Amant and Deanne Palazzo Dalzell. “Without them coming alongside, we wouldn’t have reached what we did,” she says.

Volunteers with some of the 450 pounds of food donated at the event.

The team was able to determine the most immediate demands, create lists of needed items and provide a central point of contact for people looking to help. Social media proved to be a valuable tool in connecting with people and sharing information.

The group also organized a community event on the afternoon of Oct. 14 featuring an extensive silent auction, live music, crafts for kids, snacks and food.

“The whole point was to help those from the top to the bottom of everyone who had been displaced, including businesses, and bring some light and love into the town, because that was so desperately needed,” says Ms. Steele.

The event was well attended and raised more than $6,800 and 450 pounds of food.

“For a small town, that is incredible,” says Ms. Steele. “It’s a town that pulls together. We simply walked up and down the street asking for silent auction items or business support, and I had nobody say no – nobody. We had five tables of silent auction items. I’m not surprised.”

The team’s next step was to determine how to distribute the money and food fairly among those affected by the collapse. “It’s not always the easy thing to do, in terms of who needs what,” says Ms. Steele. “Nobody’s been allowed to get back in their home.”

She said the group was planning to distribute gift cards to let people make their own decisions about how best to replace their lost possessions.

Meanwhile, the site at 78 Main St. persists as a reminder of what so many have lost. Demolition work took place slowly throughout the fall as workers tried to preserve the adjacent buildings and limit the risk from asbestos. “You’re still seeing people’s pictures on the walls and their glasses in the cupboards,” says Ms. Steele. “There’s a lot of work ahead. It’s not a fait accompli, it’s not done.”

As the community continues to recover, Ms. Steele says she is thankful for the generosity of so many people in Penetanguishene. “One person can come up with an idea and other people can jump in and help, but it wouldn’t have succeeded without the grace of God that everybody wanted to help – everybody,” she says. “We find ourselves working together to fulfill the needs where we best can with the gifts that we have. That’s community, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”


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