Empty pews resulting in closure of more and more small, rural churchesPosted Nov 29, 2012 By Mary Cook
EMC Lifestyle - Helen Johnson has lived next to St. Andrew's United Church at Watsons Corners, deep in the Ottawa Valley, for more than 50 years. This was where her children were baptized, where she taught Sunday school, was an elder and Clerk of the Session, and rarely missed sitting in a pew every Sunday.Early in November, the little church was packed to capacity. Not to celebrate another successful year of ministry, but to witness the final service and close its doors forever as a church.
"It was a sad, sad day. And when they sang 'Till we meet again', I was so overcome I had to get up and leave," Johnson said.
The church was down to just a few attendees. Some Sundays there may be 10 or 15, but usually, about six people showed up. As one loyal supporter said when she saw the crowd that turned out to witness the closing: "Where were you when we needed you?"
St. Andrew's United at Watsons Corners is just one of many small rural churches hearing the toll of the death knell. In fact, within the Central Lanark Pastoral Charge, at least four other small rural churches have closed its doors.
Many of us of a certain age, remember when the social life of every rural community revolved around the local church. This is where suppers, services, concerts and support brought neighbours together. Loyal members saw that the church was kept in repair, home was paid to a higher being, and the minister was a force to be reckoned with.
Often two churches of different denominations clustered together, but served a like purpose: minister to the believers, perpetuate the strong belief that brought the church to the community in the first place, and serve as a meeting place.
St. Andrew's at Watsons Corners was one of Rev. Rod Bennett's three three-point charge parishes. "We have entered a different era. Young families often do not see the need for organized religion. Hockey and soccer fill Sunday morning, and sadly I believe in 10 years there will no longer be any little rural churches," he said.
How times have changed. Once alive with community activity, today, the small rural church struggles just to keep its doors open. The farming community, in many areas, has taken on a new look. The family farm is often no longer in the family. A new breed of rural resident is taking over. Their allegiance to the small struggling church does not have the fervent loyalty of those earlier settlers. Large, well-equipped community halls often right next door to a struggling rural church, are now the social hub for the farming community. No longer is the little church needed as a gathering place for community activity. Rural churches, of course, are not unique when it comes to survival. Many city churches have closed as well. According to Rev. Bob Hill, retired Presbyterian minister now living in Combermere, even attitudes have changed when it comes to church. "More and more weddings are being performed outside of church. Scenic retreats, golf clubs, grand hotels have all become the place for the wedding ceremony. Even funerals are being held outside the church, and many, many young people do not have their children baptized," he said.
It was inevitable, with decreasing attendance, that St. Andrew's United Church at Watsons Corners would join the growing ranks of the small rural churches unable to keep their doors open. And what is to become of the actual buildings? Will they become derelict, or will they become homes like so many closed rural churches?
So many were built of solid stone or brick, and will endure long after those who are today striving to keep the doors open. More and more of these small rural churches have been adapted to family living quarters, and from the exterior it is sometimes hard to recognize that the building was once a thriving church in the community. Johnson is praying for some nice family to move in to the little church and maintain St. Andrew's with the same good care and integrity it has enjoyed for more than a century.
In the meantime, she will keep the grass cut, and try to maintain the property. Like those few who stayed loyal to the church until its last breath, she will live with her memories of the days when the little white frame building was the mainstay of the community.
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