The Death of a Church

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Rural Anglican parishes in Canada are often comprised of several small churches. Many priests have been surprised with the presentation of another tiny building tucked into the folds of a back country road.

My first parish downshore had two principal church buildings and a small, seasonal chapel of ease off the coast road. It had been consecrated for summer services for dairy farmers who had herds on pasture. It had a rural, homespun charm to it, but it was also an ugly little monstrosity smelling of mildew and abandoned wool cassocks.  When the members of the two principal churches got to arguing viciously over points of order, I locked those buildings and would hold services only in the off-grid chapel of ease. I was also surprised, and not pleasantly, with a fourth church building and its attendant cemetery farther down the coast road. It was a pretty little building, and eventually my favourite of all four. It was so remote that no one would venture down to it for regular services, and we used it for a community memorial service once a year.

The Danish parish had four buildings, and the sister parish I shepherded had one. I asked at the first vestry meeting if there were any other buildings or old chapels in the parish of which I should know. There was a bit of discussion about a lost chapel in Ansonia, on the other side of the mountain, but it was determined that the building had been gutted by fire and torn down, and it belonged to The Tobique anyway.

“There’s Foley Brook,” Finn said.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“At Foley Brook. It was our only stone church.”

The older vestry members reminisced about the stone building, its stained glass, the altar and pews built by a master Danish carpenter before the turn of the last century. The altar was at the little church on the English side of the river.

“Why are we not using the church?” I asked

“It’s gone,” Finn said. “It had to be torn down. The walls weren’t stable.”

“But a stone building should be stable for centuries if it is maintained. The great medieval cathedrals are still standing.”

“It was a beautiful building,” Finn said. “Very old world. But we didn’t save it.”

“So you have lost my best church?”

Finn shrugged uneasily and turned to Rafe. “Well?”

Rafe was the local architect and builder, a retired craftsman. Rafe had a sixth sense for building and stability. He was an elf of an elderly man, sharp and brilliant at heart.

“It was not well-built. Things were wrong with the design.”

“Like what? Was it English or Danish built?”

“English, and ja, they should know, but…” His sentence ended in that encompassing Danish shrug.

“I won’t take it personally if you tell me what went wrong. I’m not English.” I really wanted to know, as it might indicate problems with the other buildings.

“It was not a proper stone foundation, made with the blocks of stone. It was a rubble foundation. It couldn’t support the weight of the walls. It could have been saved, if the work had been done to reinforce the foundation. But it was a lot of work to do. The others couldn’t agree on the expense, you know, spending the money. ‘Peng’ is always the important thing to the Danes. The English, they will spend the money on something old, even if it is not used. But not so much the Danish. So the church was condemned.”

“Is there anything left?”

“The stone was taken away, sold or something. I don’t know. It was good dressed stone. You don’t get that anymore up here in the north. We kept one piece, from the cornerstone. It is the support stone to the stairs into the vestry here.”

So the cornerstone had become the stone the builders overlooked, and I stepped on it every time I entered my own door to the church. The practical Danes had saved that much, and put it under my feet.

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A rubble foundation was a problem at another church, Saint Wilfrid’s, on the eastern side of the river. It had been a chapel of ease for riverbank farmers, and was a stately barn of a timberframe building. The rafters were exposed. Its sacristy was in the bell tower, and that tower was a landmark along the river. It had a wood burning stove for heat. The pews were plain wood, the pulpit rescued from a church that had been deconsecrated on the Miramichi. It was a plain church, as simply furnished as an old Methodist chapel.  The little farming community still farmed, but mostly they went to the Roman Catholic Church that offered Christian education classes, or the Pentecostal church that had music and was a lot more entertaining than a staid spoken Anglican service.

It was obvious the church was settling. The farmer who lived next door, Alfie, was its caretaker, and we walked around its foundations one day after agreeing that the south floor was sloping at a discernible angle.

“It’s going, Pastor,” he said. “You know, it wasn’t meant to stand a hundred years. It was meant to be replaced.”

Its foundations were field stones cemented together, with concrete piers.  “We could build a knee wall and higher piers to support it,” I said. “We could have buttresses built in pressure-treated wood to take the weight of the roof.”

Alfie shook his head. “Ain’t worth it. Just the knee wall would cost thousands, even if we did the work ourselves. It’s going to need a new roof, new floor joists, and we ain’t even looked into the tower.”

I shook my head. “We don’t have the money.”

“We don’t have the money,” he echoed, with a note of finality.

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We called a meeting of those who lived in the community and had attended the Anglican church. The parish wardens discreetly stayed away, awaiting my report. The community would have to make the decision.

I presented the problem at the meeting, held in Alfie and May’s kitchen. There were questions about getting a contractor’s estimate, about funds on deposit with the diocese, about loans from the church development fund.

“We don’t have funds on deposit, and the church development fund won’t lend for building repairs. I don’t see much purpose in getting an estimate if we can’t pay for the work.”

Mick shook his head, and spoke. “It’s our own fault. We let it go. And you know how we let it go? We didn’t attend church. Why repair a church we don’t use?”

“We fought amongst ourselves too much,” May said. “One would say something, and another would just disagree, and nothing got done. We stopped coming to church so we wouldn’t argue.”

“We weren’t much of church then,” Mick answered.

“You know,” May said, “most of that arguing was amongst the old people. And they are gone. And we just let their old fights stand.”

The ad hoc committee agreed. The church would be deconsecrated, and then torn down. We talked about selling the good timber and rafters. The big church of The Tobique could have the bell, the pews could go out into the community or be auctioned, the altar – a plywood horror when stripped of paraments – would be dismantled and burned. I had already removed the altar silver to the rectory safe.

That was it. It was done.

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The church building eventually came down, and some of its members dispersed to other Anglican churches. It wasn’t the church building that died, though. Buildings come and go. Perhaps they were poorly built, perhaps they burned. The death was of a congregation, a Christian family. That is the real church.

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Ashes to Ashes

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Cremation is a delicate subject among a country congregation. It is seen as undignified and disrespectful by many among the older generation. For my Danish congregations, it evoked old world memories, of pagan funeral legends and witch persecutions.

Rarely, someone from the community would die at a distance, and the only practical way to inter the remains was cremation, the ashes transported by a family member or friend. The funeral for a cremation seemed hollow to the local people, a party without the guest of honour. It lacked drama. An Anglican funeral of the old Book of Common Prayer is dignified, spare drama. It is one of the better scenes from a Shakespearean tragedy.  It evokes Act 3 of Richard II, the telling of sad stories of the deaths of kings, while ending in triumph, knowing that the Redeemer lives and at the last day, shall stand upon the earth. It needs its silent central character.

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Instead of the entrance into the church of the coffin, preceded by the priest reciting scripture, the urn was placed on a small table at the front, outside the chancel. I would have it in the place where the casket would usually be, at the foot of the chancel steps, covered with plain white linen,  as a substitute for the pall. The pall is important in old Anglican funerals. It symbolizes the grave clothes, and since it is the property of the church, it dignifies the poor and humbles the rich. It covers both an expensive casket and the poorest coffin. The pall goes on the casket at the church door, before the entry into the nave. Traditionally, nothing is placed on the pall, no insignia, no personal item, no flowers. In death, all are equal.

I had decided on draping cremation urns for the same reason. Some families chose to use nothing but the box in which the ashes were returned to them, and others had chosen expensive, ornate containers. Most old Anglican churches still had the white paraments of a previous generation, and the Altar Guild would choose something suitable in size as a substitute for a pall.

Before the funeral, as I made my parish rounds, I would hear the local tisking and clucking over the choice of cremation. “Oh, jah, but you know that her mother would not have wanted this, she didn’t hold with these modern things…” The lack of suitable visiting before the funeral was lamented. I could patiently explain that the wake was for the living, not the dead, but I was not convincing. Of course they wanted to see the deceased one last time. A bank of photos was not adequate. There was an unspoken belief – unspoken to me, at least – that we were rushing things, burning the body. What if the soul was not ready? What if the soul needed to know the body was properly buried? I did not dismiss their concerns as superstition.

At my first parish, on that bleak north shore, I had suggested a columbarium, a structure built like a wall, with sealed niches for cremated remains. Many had moved away after the war, and providing for a resting place for those who wanted their ashes returned to their ancestral home made sense. The horrible Sand Hill cemetery was running out of viable burial space, and the Clifton cemetery was washing slowly into the Bay. But my Irish-Canadian co-patriots would have none of that. They had corporate memories of the Famine, and the horrifying quick disposal of the many victims, the survivors too weak to dig proper graves.

I had a call one summer’s evening from a neighbour who was not a parishioner. He belonged to the Lutheran congregation, which was without a pastor at that time. I presided over their funerals, weddings and baptisms, while a congregant read their Sunday services. there was a certain amount of sneaking across the road – literally, as the churches faced each other at the top of the mountain. “I need to hear a real minister,” said one Lutheran escapee. I could remind that we are all ministers of the church, but she preferred the signature of the bishop on an actual license, thank you. I was not needed officially for Lutheran funerals; this though, was a delicate matter.

The deceased had not lived in the community since he departed for military service. He had been a bit of a wild young man, and he hadn’t held with regular church attendance. His dying request, though, was that his ashes be transported back to the hills of his immigrant ancestors, to be mingled with the native soil. And here was the really delicate part: He wanted to have his ashes scattered on the family farm.

This I could not do. Human remains could not be simply strewn on agricultural land. Neither the government nor the church would allow this.

The old friend and I met to work out details. “I can place some of the ashes in an unused area of the farm, ” I suggested, “but not as scattered to the winds. They must be buried. But the bishop will insist that there is a burial in sacred ground, so most of the ashes need to go into the cemetery.”

“Ah, well, we can do that much,” the old friend said. “The family has a plot. I will ask them.”

So this was the plan. A small amount of the ashes would be transferred to a wooden box, and would be buried in the farm hedgerow among the roots of a suitable tree, with prayers for the deceased and the hallowing of that place. The remainder of the ashes would be interred next to the family headstone at the Anglican cemetery.

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It was a beautiful late summer day. A few weary maple and birch leaves were in red and yellow dress. The sky was the pure, astounding blue of the north, with white clouds like the sails of Viking ships. We walked down along the verge of a potato field soon to be harvested, and stopped under a tall, old birch. I climbed through the russet branches of a hazelnut copse, and stood on the wide root of the tree. The old friend dug a suitable hole with a garden spade, and I said a few words as the little carved box was planted. The wind sighed in the branches above us, and the leaves pattered as if feet were climbing quickly up a stairway we could not see.

The rest of the family and close friends met us at the cemetery. The words were the usual ones from the Book of Common Prayer, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” in the sure hope of the resurrection.

“That’s finished,” said the old friend as we left the grave.