Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Losing their religion

Church-going folks in rural Manitoba struggle with the 21st-century reality that faith and hope will no longer keep their aged sanctuaries and aging congregations alive

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NINETTE -- There are three people in the congregation, nestled in the wooden pews of a 107-year-old church that doesn't have a prayer.

Outside St. Michael and All Angels Anglican church, storm winds are howling.

Inside, the sparse gathering is gamely attempting to sing Amazing Grace. But there is a problem. The laptop computer program blaring the organ music is lagging a little.

The real organ, now covered in a flowery quilt, fell silent last November. The suspected culprits, not unlike the God to which the few have gathered to sing their praises, are everywhere. Yet invisible.

"It died on us in November," Teresa May said in mid-February. "I have a feeling the mice got into it."

May is the secretary treasurer of a church that has no income. She is a Mennonite who has been attending St. Michaels for a dozen or so years, along with husband, Morley. Also in attendance is Debbie Dionne, who first sat in these pews some 50 years ago and later taught Sunday school when up to 40 children were weaned on the Bible's teachings.

These days, there are no children to be found. On a good day, up to eight residents of the small southwestern Manitoba community will attend a Sunday service.

But this is not a good day.

Blustery winds and snowfall have made travel difficult for the older members of the congregation. That means most of them.

Good thing they turned on the furnace the night before. A few years back, they filled up the tank that heats St. Michael's with diesel fuel. When the tank empties, there will be no money to fill it again.

Summertime, however, presents its own set of problems. Feral cats get into the basement, and other woodland creatures inhabit the walls. Joked Rev. Peter van der Leelie: "At first I thought, 'It's finally happened: God is talking to me.' Turns out, it was the squirrels."

Like many struggling churches that dot the rural countryside, St. Michaels and All Saints is literally running out of energy and time.

"I think people just don't believe anymore," lamented Dionne. "Less devoted, maybe."

Indeed, the religious landscape in the 21st century is experiencing a new and uncertain testament. Small-town churches are fast going the way of the one-room schoolhouse. Travelling pastors, priests and ministers are the norm, serving increasingly aging and sparser flocks. Dwindling congregations that meet in the same churches built and attended by their great-great-great-grandparents are now accepting shared services, and ministers, with other denominations.

Still, faith dies hard in places that have fed for generations on hope and harvest. In Ninette, Dionne says, "God is still there," even if the children are not anymore.

They keep praying. They keep singing Amazing Grace, even though the three-person congregation continues to get ahead of their electronic organist perched on a chair in the front row.

Patience remains a virtue, though.

In mid-hymn, Rev. Peter playfully chides, "Can you tell her to hurry it up a bit?"

The snow is beginning to drift on Highway 3, but the man behind the wheel of a small compact plows on undaunted. It's Sunday morning, and Reverend Peter, as he's known to the locals, has miles to go and sermons to preach.

"A few drifts, eh?" van der Leelie is saying. "We're up to the challenge. I don't go if I can't see (the road). But other than that, I keep going and praying for the best."

It's an unintended yet apt metaphor: Trying to envision the future of rural parishes that are, well, perishing. It's not about theology or faith, van der Leelie insists, with no hint of defensiveness. It's math.

"This whole system will die," he said, matter-of-factly. "It can't exist the way it is. It's a real chore to keep all these buildings open. The buildings themselves, and the people in them, I don't think they'll be around in 30 or 40 years. The church has to evolve into something else."

Reverend Peter is bound for Boissevain and St. Matthews Anglican Church, a classical stone structure erected in 1890. Some 30 years ago, St. Matthews owned the adjacent rectory where a minister resided year-round. The choir boxes most Sundays held at least a dozen singers. The pews were well occupied with couples in their 30s and 40s.

Next door, a healthy-sized group of children gathered in the Parish Hall for Sunday school lessons.

No more. The choir box is empty now, silent. When Sunday school classes are held, occasionally, it is for two young children from one family. The services draw an average of a dozen or so, almost all in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

The rectory has been sold. Instead, congregations in Boissevain and Killarney not only share the services of Reverend Peter (based in Killarney), but they subsidize his travels to Anglican churches in Ninette and Cartwright every other week.

Financially, the Boissevain congregation takes in about $5,000 per year -- through everything from bake sales to weekly offerings -- less than their portion of the shared ministry cost, meaning the church's modest savings continue to erode.

The math isn't lost on the faithful, either. St. Matthew's rector's warden Bryan Jackson, 57, said, "There's a lot of grey hair in our church."

And Jackson is one of the youngest.

As boy growing up on a dairy farm, Jackson, who now farms near Minto, just north of Boissevain, was in a Catholic church every Sunday. Sometimes his father was unable to attend, having to deal with the daily chores of milking and tending to the herd.

"I hated to go to church without my dad," Jackson said. "I made a promise to myself early, early on that I would go to church every Sunday with my family."

So it has come to pass. Jackson and wife Fran had two children, Marlie and Bill, and the family became regulars at St. Matthews in the last three decades.

"I feel richly blessed," the farmer said. "If all I have to do is go to church on Sunday, I'll do that. Life's pretty short here, and I don't want to end up in the wrong place. Eternity is a long time."

Old church, old school. Jackson, of course, is alluding to his faith as being a prerequisite to a greater reward.

"Maybe I'm just a big chicken," he said with a chuckle.

Jackson insisted he's not perfect. Sometimes, for example, he'll attend socials in Minto and drink more than he should "too fast."

(Author's confession: As a former altar boy at St. Matthews who was raised in Boissevain, I humbly suggested to Jackson that if consuming too many drinks at a Minto social is a restriction to the Pearly Gates, then Heaven will surely be a lonely place. And come midnight, they'll be serving ham buns, cheese cubes and pickles in hell. He didn't disagree.)

Yet Jackson freely acknowledges the cultural shift -- which began in the late '70s and early '80s -- that has left his church vulnerable.

"Now people are out and about so much they have to fit church into the occasion," he reasoned. "Today's parents aren't bringing their children to church anymore. And once you get away from it, it's hard to start again."


-- -- --


Down the road in Killarney, the next stop for Rev. Peter on this Sunday, the Holy Trinity Anglican Church might be more financially stable, having undergone major structural renovations within the last decade, but the demographics are just as disconcerting.

"The church is still important to people, they just don't want to go all the time," offered treasurer Carolyn Pinkerton. "We keep trying to get young people involved, but it seems in most families both the husband and wife work. And on Sundays they want to stay home."

Or attend hockey tournaments with their kids. Or watch football. Or shop.

"The church seems to be competing with everything else in the community," Pinkerton added. "It boils down to people have to make the choice of what they want to do. It scares me to think of what's going to happen (in the future). Unless something changes, we might not have a church. We've had to go into our savings, too."

But when it comes to the struggles of rural congregations, Killarney and Boissevain are only the tip of the steeple. Churches of all denominations in rural Canada, most notably on the Prairies and in the Maritimes, have been either shrinking or disappearing for decades.

Which raises a question almost always associated with faith: What does it all mean?

For example, Jackson wonders how many school-age children can recite the Lord's Prayer, or have even been introduced to the most common biblical teachings? Does it matter that Noah's Ark didn't appear in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants?

And if small-town churches are losing their religion -- at least in the centuries-old traditional sense -- how does that affect the foundation of the communities involved?

If the school closes, a community's future is threatened. If the bank and elevator close, the economic underpinnings are destabilized. If the hockey team folds, the social fabric is torn and frayed.

But what happens when the choir stops singing hymns, or when the pulpit is vacant, or when, finally, the church walls are overrun with squirrels and the doors close?

Jackson's answer to that question is decidedly unsentimental and laced with common sense.

"Once the seniors in our church are gone," he reasoned, "I don't know if anyone will really care."

Still, if the act of attending church is waning, the essence of spiritualism in the community -- regardless of denomination or religious belief -- has yet to receive the last rites. When a Free Press reporter attended a service in Boissevain in late February, Rev. Peter asked members of his congregation to turn to one another and hug or shake hands.

"Peace be with you," they told each other.

Not in attendance that morning was a 14-year-old named Atsede Hobb. She was the altar girl with the booming voice at St. Matthews services. Atsede was very close friends with kids in the Penner family who were at the service, including their 14-year-old son, Logan, who often referred to Atsede as a sister.

Then tragedy struck. Later that week, Atsede and an exchange student from Mexico named Carla Gonzalez were killed in a snowmobile accident at the Penner farm, just north of Boissevain.

The news was devastating. Rev. Peter, who had just arrived in Kamloops, B.C. to visit his son and grandchildren, was immediately contacted by Jackson. He was home within 20 hours to be with the Hobbs and Penner families.

"They need him right now," Pinkerton said of the travelling minister. "The church is the place that holds people together in a situation like this."

Longtime St. Matthews parishioner Shirley Turner knows that.

"People think of a church being old and outdated, but it's still a community," she said. "There's that sort of 'love thy neighbour' thing, which is really what it's all about. It's a support system. It's caring for each other."

St. Matthews wasn't nearly big enough to hold the funeral service, which was held at the Whitewater Mennonite Church. More than 400 mourners from every domination attended.


-- -- --


Pastor Claire Speary is a Lutheran with an adopted Anglican flock.

Every Sunday, Speary holds services for the Lutheran congregations in Teulon and Inwood. Her third service of the day is for the folks of the Anglican Parish of St. Cyprian.

Every third Sunday, the Anglicans attend services at St. Peter Lutheran.

It was a marriage of necessity. If the Anglicans didn't agree to the shared ministry, their church would close.

"The reality is we all need each other," Speary said. "I've become a little more Anglican, they've become a little more Lutheran. It's worked."

It doesn't always work. When hard-held beliefs of differing faiths -- especially when it concerns biblical interpretation -- are concerned, the option of melding services, if not financial resources, is a non-starter.

"People are reluctant to change" said van der Leelie. "And when you're dealing with church services, you're dealing with history."

Though Lutheran and Anglican services are more compatible, Pastor Speary believes rural churches of all faiths will need each other more as they head into an uncertain future.

"We're a small town and everybody knows everybody anyhow," she said. "We go to all the same hockey games together. What's the difference?"

Spears is a member of the Ecumenical Shared Ministries of Canada, which includes 14 parishes in Manitoba, 24 in Saskatchewan and a total of 104 across Canada.

In late 2006, the Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Churches in Canada formed a national ecumenical shared ministries task force, conceived to collect and disseminate resources about ecumenical shared ministries.

Speary cites cases of congregations working together on fundraising, too.

"It's discouraging if numbers are important to you," the pastor conceded, regarding the shrinking congregations. "The reality is the people don't know the Bible stories anymore. The interest is not there. Times are changing."

After all, when many rural Manitoba churches were first erected, back in the late 1800's, they were often the first buildings in the community.


"That was the centre of people's lives," she said. "Every little town had a church that was the social and spiritual focus. And people would go out of their way to go. They stopped for Sunday."

Janet Kostnya was ordained into the Lutheran Church five years ago. Her first calling was a community in southwestern Saskatchewan. But the congregations and Sunday offerings dried up, and she was forced to pull up stakes and move to Inglis, Man.

Today, Kostnya serves two churches, one in Inglis (pop. 200) and another in nearby Russell (pop. 2,000).

Of note, Kostnya said her congregation in Inglis -- which has long made a deliberate effort to welcome young families into the church -- draws about 40 locals every Sunday, including eight to 10 families with children. There is an active Sunday school and youth group in Inglis, too.

"It's been a practice for a long time," Kostnya said of inviting younger residents into the church leadership. "It keeps that new life and new ideas coming."

In Russell, with perhaps 10 times the population, the average size of a congregation is about 25, the average age about 75. The financial numbers are stacked against them, too.

"If things don't change, the congregation is financially viable for five years, which is a crisis," said Kostnya.

She is a board member of the Centre for Rural Community Leadership and Ministry (Circle M), an interdenominational, non-profit organization formed as a support group for clergy and lay leaders facing challenges that are larger than individual parishes.

"What happens when a community loses its spiritual core?" Kostnya said, repeating the question. "That sense of hope, that caring community, that sense of purpose, the sense of why you are here."

All reasons, Kostnya argued, that the churches now being threatened were built in the first place.

But at least one observer believes there's something many struggling rural congregations have to do first: Forgive themselves.

"They're dealing with grief issues," offered John Young, director of the rural ministry program at Queen's Theological College, in a 2008 article in the Christian Courier.

"They say, 'We don't have the numbers that we used to have. We're older. We don't have as many young people.'

"Churches wonder, 'Are we going to be able to keep going? Will the congregation be able to sustain itself financially, and will it continue to be a force in the local community?'

"Rural churches need to stop beating themselves up because they are growing smaller," Young added. "They need to recognize that the changes they're facing are part of the broader society. They need to think less about the past and focus on what they can do in the present."

Which leads to one emerging irony: that communities in the 21st century are now seeing the old become new again, with the prospect of an increase in home services, an increasing clergy of travelling ministers and a rise in ecumenical services.

"It's kind of going full circle," Jackson said. "When you look in the history books, the minister would go around on a horse and buggy and hold services from town to town. We're just slowly going back."

Rev. Peter has been in Killarney for a year now. After a career as a journalist -- "It seemed I was always covering accidents where there was blood on the road" -- he's settling into the ways of his new surroundings which are far more harsh than in his former church on the B.C. coast.

"I can be kind of living in a fish bowl," he shared. "Some people think you're a bit better than human, closer to God. But I'm not."

Instead, Rev. Peter is facing very human concerns of mortality and survival. He's not afraid.

Perhaps, van der Leelie reasoned, faith needs to be tested.

"It's OK for the church to die and evolve," he said of the physical evolution of rural congregations and buildings facing extinction.

"It was nice for a time, but those days are gone. It's not working the way it is now. Obviously, from the '60s on, it's been a slow decline in attendance, but not in faith.

"The faith is there. It's just evolving into something new. I think something wonderful will come out of it. God is very strong, spirituality is strong. It's not about buildings, really. The questions haven't stopped. It's just that they (the younger generations) no longer ask them in places they think are archaic."

What will happen?

"I don't quite know," he concluded, "but people like to congregate."


-- -- --


Back in Ninette, Dionne is loath to think about the doors of her little church closing, which is fully expected when inspectors arrive in the spring. There are two stark options, according to May: "Close, or stay open until we lose all our money... which is not very long."

For Dionne, no more communions at St. Michael's All Angels will be a difficult wafer to swallow. "It's been a big part of my life," she said.

She still remembers the yard sales, the auctions and family picnics she's attended over the years, along with the services for Christmas and Easter, long before the furnace faced last call.

The church, she said, was sometimes even a personal sanctuary during difficult times, noting: "Some nights I've gone over to the church and felt... this is God's house."

Then Dionne chuckled.

"I'm just lucky," she said, "I have a key."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2012 J1

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