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'Huge event': Orillia prepares to say goodbye to Gordon Lightfoot

Special service, open to the public, expected to draw thousands, will be held Sunday at St. Paul's, where Lightfoot's legendary career began when he was a choir boy

A final send-off for Canadian folk music legend Gordon Lightfoot, Orillia’s favourite son, will be held Sunday at the church where the choir boy’s career was launched.

St. Paul’s United Church, now known as St. Paul’s Centre, where Lightfoot was a soprano in the boys’ choir, will host a public service this Sunday from 1 to 8 p.m. All members of the public are welcome pay their respects.

Peter Street will be closed to traffic between Coldwater and Neywash streets in anticipation of thousands of expected guests.

“This is a very huge event, not just for St. Paul’s, but for Orillia, and I would say this is going to be a very singular and momentous event for both,” said Katrina Hunt, facilities administrator at St. Paul’s.

“We are expecting, probably, numbers in the thousands, so it’s going to be pretty busy here in Orillia on Sunday.”

Hunt said members of the public will be able to line up and enter the church from its Peter Street entrance. They will then be guided into the church’s sanctuary, where Lightfoot’s coffin will be, to pay their respects before leaving through the west atrium.

“Anybody from the public who wishes to pay their respects and say a last goodbye will be able to come through St. Paul’s building, visit (Lightfoot’s coffin) very briefly … keep their feet moving, and then go out through the sanctuary and exit,” Hunt said.

Church members have been working hard to prepare for the event.

“We’ve been preparing ever since we found out on Tuesday afternoon that this would be his final spot to have a goodbye, and we’ve been working closely with Mundell Funeral Home, who has been working with (his) family,” she said.

“It’s been a lot of our time and energy, along with lots of volunteers in St. Paul’s, who have been happily spending their time contributing to this, but I know that everybody is very much willing to contribute. They look upon Gordie, as many of us do, as a Canadian idol, as an icon for our country, and we’re happy to have him coming back.”

Gordon Lightfoot chats with St. Paul’s minister Karen Hilfman Millson and the church’s music director, Blair Bailey, during a visit to the church in 2013. | Margot Crowder Davidson photo

Blair Bailey, organist/choir director at the St. Paul’s since 1984, said Lightfoot’s roots in the church run deep.

“His family attended St. Paul’s United Church and, all those years, he was right through in the Sunday school, and he was always in the choirs and the children’s choir in there,” Bailey said. “We still have photos of him in his choir gown, singing in the children’s choir at the church.”

His experiences in the church choir were important developmental steps in Lightfoot becoming a world-renowned singer, Bailey said, highlighting how the church’s previous organist, Ray Williams, entered Lightfoot in the Toronto Music Festival.

“He won first prize there in the Toronto Music Festival and got asked to sing at Massey Hall in their final concert, and that was his first performance in Massey Hall, as a boy soprano, before his voice changed,” Bailey recalled. “He had all that training as a boy.”

Throughout his life, Bailey said, Lightfoot kept in touch with not only his hometown, but the church as well.

“We invited him to come back for the St. Paul’s congregation’s 175th anniversary, and that was in 2006, and he accepted our invitation. He did an afternoon of performing some of the songs; he brought two of his band mates with him — Rick Haynes and then his other guitarist,” Bailey said.

“That was a wonderful afternoon in 2006, (and) one of the things he said (was), ‘This is where it all started.’”

Bailey said the church is busy putting together a fitting celebration of Lightfoot’s life.

“It has been said, continuously, since the news of his passing came out, we’ve lost a great Canadian. It’s very touching and moving for us that he has indicated that he wants this to be in his hometown and in his home church growing up,” he said.

“We just hope that this will be able to be a wonderful celebration of a great Canadian figure, so (we are doing) everything we can, hopefully, to make that possible.”

Coun. Ralph Cipolla is shown with Gordon Lightfoot at a previous Mariposa Folk Festival at Tudhope Park. The two were longtime friends. | Supplied photo

Coun. Ralph Cipolla, who grew up with Lightfoot, said it is no surprise to see him return to his roots for his final goodbye.

“Gordon Lightfoot put Orillia on the map. He came back for every (Mariposa) Folk Festival — just about every one — and he’d wander around in the audience ... He loved Orillia; he really did,” Cipolla said.

“He also donated back to Orillia whenever he did a concert, and he contributed to the opera house and to Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, and he donated the bust just outside the opera house.”

Cipolla spoke highly of Lightfoot’s character, recalling childhood memories when Lightfoot — who was several years older — would stick up for him in the neighbourhood park.

“Some of the older kids would bully us, and Gord would come and protect us and tell the older kids to bug off,” he said. “In our neighbourhood, he was highly regarded. He was a good guy.”

Those qualities shone through his whole life, Cipolla said.

“He was one of the celebrities that it wasn’t about him — it was about the people that knew him, and about people that asked him an for autograph, asked him for a picture,” he said. “I had a lot of respect for him, and I go back a long, long time with memories of him.”

Following Sunday’s service, Lightfoot will go to his final resting place with his family.

“He’s going to be, ultimately, cremated and going to be resting with his mom and his dad and his sister, who predeceased him, just up the hill at St. Andrews’s-St. James’ Cemetery,” Hunt said.

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Greg McGrath-Goudie

About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie

Greg has been with Village Media since 2021, where he has worked as an LJI reporter for CollingwoodToday, and now as a city hall/general assignment reporter for OrilliaMatters
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