Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Church a pillar in Poplar Point

St. Anne's Anglican carries on long tradition of worship

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POPLAR POINT -- During a summer trip down memory lane, Joyce Gorzen took a short detour to a small country church to visit a friend's grave and take in a century-and-a-half of history.

"I just think there are so many memories here, not mine, but other people's memories," explains the Winnipegger on a mid-week visit to St. Anne's Anglican Church.

"There are so many people who've passed through here. The church was a big part of the community."

Make that present tense. The historic log church completed in 1864 is still a big part of the community, about 30 minutes west of Winnipeg along the winding Highway 26.

"It sort of holds the district together. I know when people come (here) they mention the church," says longtime member Dorothy Nelson, who has attended since 1948. Only poor health in recent years has kept her away.

Once one of three churches in the Poplar Point district, the little yellow Anglican church just west of the village is the only one with its doors still open, kept running by nine or so faithful families and the dedication of local farmer, reiki teacher and church warden Monica Griffiths.

"Mostly, I clean, do lunch, I do (scripture) readings and help serve communion," says Griffiths, 55, of her church duties.

The small congregation -- along with an expected three or four dozen visitors -- plans to celebrate its 153rd anniversary with a special 10 a.m. worship service Sunday. The congregation was founded in 1859 by Archdeacon William Cockran. The building was completed five years later.

"We get people of all sorts," says Griffiths of the annual anniversary service, always held in August in the Red River frame-style church surrounded by a large cemetery, the final resting place of hundreds of the area's settlers.

"We get people of faith and of no faith. We just get people who want to see what worship in an old church is like."

Other than the addition of electric lights and overhead radiant heaters -- known as chicken heaters in farming country -- worship is probably much the same as it was when the double wood doors opened for the first time in 1864.

Parishioners sit and kneel on the original upright oak pews, supply preachers speak from the raised octagonal pulpit and voices still echo in the lively acoustics, enhanced by bare wood floors, plastered walls and the truncated gable ceiling. Worshippers can admire the original vestry screen, with its hand-carved Fleur-de-lis edging.

"It's very positive, very welcoming. There is a very happy-to-see-you energy that has nothing to do with the building itself," Griffiths, 55, says about the feeling inside the yellow painted clapboard building, proclaimed a provincial historic site in 1997.

"It's embedded from all the 100-plus happy years. There have been a lot of happy times."

For Griffiths, those happy times include her wedding in 1974 and the baptism and confirmation of her children, as well as regular meetings with friends, neighbours and former Poplar Point residents.

The tiny congregation worships at the old church during the summer and early fall and meets monthly during the rest of the year in their parish hall in Poplar Point, located about three kilometres east of the old church.

After the last permanent minister -- shared with the Anglican church in nearby Oakville -- retired 18 months ago, the congregation has relied on preachers supplied from the diocesan office for Sunday worship and the occasional funeral, memorial service or wedding. Whatever the occasion, Griffiths faithfully turns on the lights, starts the coffee pot, sets out the cookies and welcomes whomever comes.

"We've been four people and the minister comes and says if two or more are gathered, we'll do the service," says the longtime church warden.

Although it may seem like a congregation without much hope for a long future, Griffiths isn't ready to declare an imminent death for a building and congregation older than Canada.

"When you come to church, you have this great singing, you visit your friends, you eat good food and you're recharged for the week," she says.

"I figure as long as people appreciate the work and keep showing up for service, we'll keep going."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 J13

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