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The Death of a Church

Church Kuolemajärvi_church_ruins

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.

church ruin st sigurds

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.

Church ruins St Leonard

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.

friedrich-caspar-david-ruins-of-the-oybin-_dreamer_-wiki

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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About Julie

Bishop of the church and religious order ICCO in The YOKE, based in Iowa City. Former Anglican parish priest, shepherd for ten years, artist, and writer.

2 responses to “The Death of a Church

  1. Jocelyn Green ⋅

    I so enjoy reading your writings, I can see many of the people you write about…..and the death of churches is all around us, and so very sad….

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