With its congregation still thriving after more than a century, it’s safe to say Westminster United Church is a house built upon the rock.
This year marks 125 years of the church (located at 745 Westminster Ave.) in the community. Most of that time has been spent at the corner of Maryland Street and Westminster Avenue. The gothic-style sanctuary was built in 1912 with what was, at the time, an innovative design.
Almost everything has changed since Westminster United Church was established in Winnipeg. Most notably, how the church interacts with the surrounding community and helps to meet its needs is always in flux.
Reverend Sherri McConnell said it’s a big occasion for the people who attend weekly services or are involved with one of the church’s programs.
"There is a lot of excitement about this 125th anniversary," McConnell said. "It’s a busy place, and they are a committed crew… it is remarkable to be part of a church community that has such a long history in Winnipeg, in this location."
McConnell said the year is a celebration of what the church has achieved, as well as an opportunity to look ahead at what is in store for the future.
"The church has changed a lot and will continue to change," she said. "Reimagining faith communities has kind of been part of being a church since pretty much the time of Jesus. We’re in good company."
Besides Sunday morning service, Westminster hosts a variety of groups, shows and community outreach programs, which keeps the calendar full. The Bell Tower Community Café has become a biweekly mainstay that provides local residents with food hampers, dinner and live entertainment on Fridays.
Reimagining faith communities has kind of been part of being a church since pretty much the time of Jesus. We’re in good company - Rev. Sherri McConnell
The bones of Westminster
Many of the church’s members have long histories with it as well, such as 125th board chair Roy Halstead.
Halstead’s passion for music led him to join the Westminster choir in 1951, while his passion for history makes him the man to ask about the church’s long past.
"This building was a contemporary building when it was first put together," Halstead explained. "It looks like a gothic cathedral outside but the building has a skeleton of steel beams. The skeleton makes possible that huge expanse of ceiling without any pillars holding it up of any kind.
"It also makes possible the huge windows that are on both sides in our sanctuary, letting in a phenomenal amount of light."
Toronto-born John Hamilton Gordon Russell (1863-1946) was the church’s architect, which he designed after attending the Toronto Model School. Russell was a prolific designer, and is responsible for over 100 buildings in Manitoba, only a few of which have been demolished.
The list includes downtown’s YMCA building (301 Vaughan St.) and many of the historical buildings in the Exchange District, as well as a handful of Winnipeg’s churches, including Knox United Church (400 Edmonton St.), St. John’s Presbyterian Church (251 Bannerman Ave.) and Crescent Fort Rouge United Church (525 Wardlaw Ave.).
"Typical churches before this time (had) straight-across pews, centre aisles," Halstead said. "This, auditorium seating, is a much more natural thing in a wide place where the guys out on the edge of the seats are kind of looking inwards and everyone’s focusing towards the centre at the front."
The well-designed space is one of the reasons it continues to be used by musical performances and recitals, and every Sunday church-goers are also treated to the sounds of Don Menzies on the organ, one of Winnipeg’s most expensive instruments.
Menzies has been the church’s organist since 1966, 51 years this year. The organ was built at the same time as the building that houses it, but wear and tear has meant plenty of upkeep and maintenance.
"In 1912… the organ cost around $10,000. Now with the additions to the organ, the evaluation is about $1.7 million," Menzies said.
There are only three organs of its size in Winnipeg. Menzies performs regularly, teaches local students and he organizes an organ performance from visiting musicians several times a year.
"We have a marvellous instrument here," he said. "In addition to the instrument, what is particularly important is the acoustics of the building. There’s a three- to four-second reverb, so when I play on the organ it rings through the church and it takes time for that sound to disappear, and that’s kind of neat. In fact, I’m playing but also playing with the acoustics."
Whether it’s Sunday morning or Friday night, Westminster United Church has its doors open to the community, ready to welcome visitors. McConnell has only been minister since December 2016, but her time with the church goes back much further than that. She said it’s the place that first introduced her to her faith.
"I grew up in this church," she said. "This is where I came to understand what it might be to be a follower of Jesus, what it is to have faith in the world and live in the world.
"The combination of beautiful space being in a more urban setting where the diversity of the world exists within this congregation — doesn’t matter if you’re from Wellington Crescent or low income housing, everyone gathers here to be community and that is my understanding and why this place is important to me."
Charles Huband has been a member of the Westminster congregation for approximately 65 years, while his father was one of the church’s first ministers from 1940 to 1955. Huband grew up in the manse next door with his family, which is the house the church provides for its ministers.
"I went to Gordon Bell High School and the University of Winnipeg, so it was walking distance to both of those educational institutions," he said.
It’s been many years since Huband was a young man living beside the church, but he continues to come for the Sunday service and some of the programming that Westminster offers.
"I guess it’s loyalty as much as anything else," he said. "I’m not a strong believer in some of the religious tenets, but I do believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ. They make sense to me… so I’m a loyalist in that sense.
"The church here is a community for me and has been for 60 years. I have friends here. We do things together. We serve the community in unique ways."
He said one of the things he enjoys about Westminster is that it’s a very welcoming church that invites everyone in the community to attend.
For Halstead, the church’s community has a special place in his heart, even though it’s not what first brought him to Westminster.
"I loved singing, I loved music, it’s a very important part of my life," he said. "So I stayed here for over 60 years.
"Why do you go to a church? Why do you join a church? These people become your friends. These are people you can depend on, that you feel warmly and friendly being with. That’s why I’m here and that’s why I’ll stay as long as I can."
Looking ahead, Halstead says the church’s community programming will keep it a neighbourhood cornerstone for many more years.
"The future is caring about other people. Not caring about ourselves, caring about who’s out there and what they need and what we can do for them," Halstead said. "That’s our future."