Gordon Lightfoot helped St. Paul's Church in Orillia celebrates its 175th anniversary, with two hours of music and memories.
Gordon Lightfoot's faithful congregation spans the globe, but his parish remains firmly rooted in Orillia.
There was no doubting that fact when the 67-year-old folk icon stepped to the altar at St. Paul's United Church Sunday afternoon, an acoustic guitar at his side, and a wealth of memories on his mind.
It was in this cavernous place of worship decades before, in front of the orderly oak pews dappled in stained-glass light, that the future music legend would first find his voice, as a member of the junior choir.
"There is no question about it," Lightfoot, looking relaxed and genuinely glad to be there, told a capacity crowd.
"It started right here."
He'd come home simply because his community had asked him to, hoping that their best-known parishioner would help celebrate the church's 175th anniversary.
In the audience were childhood friends and acquaintances - some remembered, others less so - and there was family, too.
In the front pew sat his sister, Beverley Eyers.
"His voice changed when he was about 13," she recalled, twisting around in her seat.
It was Eyers, now a Barrie resident, who often accompanied her brother on organ during his years at St. Paul's.
He would sing there for her wedding as well, but as a boy soprano, he was hard to beat.
"He was way better than anybody in the whole wide world," Eyers said.
Accompanied by long-time bandmates Rick Haynes on bass and Terry Clements on guitar, Orillia's favourite son treated an audience of 500 or so to more than two hours of song and personal recollections.
"Ray Williams taught me to sing with emotion, and that's what I did," he said, crediting the church's late choir director with having encouraged his early interest in music.
In place of the white choir gown of his youth was a charcoal-grey suit jacket, jeans, a paisley tie and black leather boots - ideal for keeping time.
Alternating between stripped-down renditions of the hits that made him famous, and an informal Q-and-A session, Lightfoot offered those gathered a rare opportunity to know him in a way his most diehard devotees could only dream of.
Often, though, he just listened to the stories and kind words spoken by those who had trudged through the snow to spend time with him that afternoon.
"Gord," asked one parishioner, a portable microphone in hand, "do you happen to recall sledding down Langman's hill in winter?" Darn right he did.
"The day had to be perfect," Lightfoot replied, clearly brightening at the memory. "Perfect ice, perfect snow, perfect temperature."
A former teacher, Donnajean Jefferies - "Ms. Irving at the time," - remembered Lightfoot doing everything but homework while seated at the back of her Latin class.
"He was too busy flying his paper airplanes," she said to laughter.
Like others that day, Jefferies would not let her moment pass without offering the heartfelt words that many in the community had been waiting years to say.
"Thank you for what you have given to us and our country," Jefferies said.
Draped across the lectern was a quilt crafted in the late 1940s or early 1950s, inscribed with the names of boys who attended Cub meetings in the church basement at the time.
Lightfoot was among them, and so was Gary Thiess.
Rising from his seat, the local man recalled Lightfoot's drive to excel at everything he attempted, whether it be music or an early interest in, of all things, pole vaulting - the latter ultimately resulting in a torn ligament.
Offered another: "I'm the guy who used to bawl you out for chewing gum while you were singing, right in front of the principal."
Questions put to him by the Rev. Karen Hilfman Millson and music director Blair Bailey were answered with surprising candour, the three of them seated on wooden stools facing the congregation.
Occasionally Lightfoot would shut his eyes, as if mentally scrolling back 50 or more years to the Orillia of his youth, to the place where he and his friends would cycle along country roads or pluck sunfish and chub from the river in nearby Marchmont.
"It was almost like a Tom Sawyer-type experience," he said.
With fame and fortune, he later told the crowd, comes great responsibility and, all too often, a distancing from friends and loved ones.
Tickets to the unpublicized performance were given free to church members, though word of the upcoming event was kept to a minimum to avoid having to turn away the inevitable crush of admirers.
Chances were good that many were within the vicinity.
Only the night before, at Orillia's historic opera house, Lightfoot had played a long-awaited show that was three years in the coming.
That performance, too, was special, a makeup gig for a show cancelled due to an abdominal hemorrhage that left him near death and in a drug-induced coma for six weeks.
"You know how it feels to be dead ... no worries, no cares," he said of the experience that resulted in an outpouring of concern from fans the world over.
By Frank Matys