LOCAL HISTORY: Clan helped build community

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

B.B. Osler's castle, built not far from Collingwood, was to be a refuge for his wife although she died shortly after it was built.

B.B. Osler's castle, built not far from Collingwood, was to be a refuge for his wife although she died shortly after it was built.

The Osler family name is famous in Simcoe County - mostly because of the three Osler brothers.

Britton Bath Osler, who practised as a lawyer, is the man behind the Osler name in Collingwood and one of the larger firms in Canadian law. Osler Bluff is named for him, and skiers and others who frequent the Collingwood area are familiar with the name.

Sir William Osler became one of the most famous physicians in the world and one of the greatest teachers of the science and art of medicine. A school west of Bradford is named after him.

Edmund Boyd Osler was one of the most successful businessmen Canada has produced.

They were all educated in Simcoe County, starting in the south at Bond Head and Bradford before heading north to Barrie's Grammar School.

All were the sons of Featherstone Lake Osler, who had a moderate amount of fame in his own right, before his sons took over the limelight. And it was because of him the Osler boys were born in Simcoe County.

Featherstone began as a sailor. He was born in 1805 into a shipowning family at Falmouth, England. By the age of 16 he was working on a merchantman and then moved to the Royal Navy. He seemed to steep himself in naval etiquette and the women of Latin America.

By 1832, the friends he relied on to move ahead his career in the Navy were no longer movers and shakers. Featherstone was urged to become involved in the Church of England and study at Cambridge for Holy orders.

He did so, obtaining his Bachelor of Arts by 1837 (the same year he was ordained as a deacon and a priest), and following that with a Master of Arts by 1843.

By then he had friends settled in Canada, some of whom had organized the Upper Canada Clergy Society. They wanted Featherstone, with his experience of world travel thanks to the Royal Navy, to become a pioneer missionary in what would become Ontario.

This was at odds with Featherstone's view of living a more gentrified life in England as a preacher in an established church not far from London.

So he didn't greet this latest idea from his friends with great enthusiasm. But they spoke of potential and the promise of the new country that was emerging, and the need and importance religion played in remote communities.

And so Featherstone grudgingly arrived in south Simcoe County to minister to the pioneers in Tecumseth and West Gwillimbury townships.

He not only tended to the people in south Simcoe, he also travelled to Bradford, north to Barrie, west to Nottawasaga township, Essa and more.

He encouraged church building wherever he went and by the end of his 20-year career, he had started 28 congregations across the province. His trademark was elimination of debt and the development of new churches and congregations.

But that's not all. He helped build a sense of community through encouraging lending libraries and was an inspector of schools. He started a school in Bond Head to educate what he called "bush clergymen" to take the pressure off himself and to care for the congregations outside his home area.

Featherstone's life in Ontario wasn't without friction. He was "discouraged" by what he said was a "lack of support" from Bishop John Strachan who was based in Toronto.

Some of Featherstone's grads from his bush school were snapped up by Strachan -- who had contributed nothing to the facility -- for use in other areas of Strachan's diocese.

The strain this friction placed on Featherstone's health was noticed by friends and family and he was urged to lighten his workload. He even considered returning to England. But with his family firmly established in Simcoe County, he took a position at a more established post as rector of Ancaster and Dundas in 1857. Even here, he continued his trademark debt reduction and adding to church facilities.

Featherstone also had a bit of attitude, as they say. He never thought twice about assuming command - it was part of his naval training. However not everyone he worked with had been in the Royal Navy, so it wasn't always appreciated. In 1868 he managed to annoy a large segment of his own parish through his "leadership".

By the time he retired in 1882, he'd been a minister to almost half of Simcoe County, the Town of Simcoe, Wellington and Halton Counties, North Wentworth and Halton and finally Christ's Church Cathedral, Hamilton.

Featherstone's naval training coloured his personality and gave him a self-assurance that biographers say bordered on arrogance. This was tempered with a clear desire to serve the needs of others and look after their needs and welfare -- both physical and spiritual.

For example, he would refuse dying parishioners sacraments if he didn't believe they were sincere in their faith. But any guest at his home was treated the same -- with "conviviality" making him a "very agreeable companion."

He died in 1895 in his 90th year and was remembered as an "effective pastor and administrator" but "chiefly remembered as a heroic and inventive pioneer missionary and, with (his wife) Ellen, as the founder of a family of unusual prominence."

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs, podcasts and can be reached at