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Eulogy for a closed church

By David Wilson

One of the toughest parts of my job is telling readers we can’t use the unsolicited articles they’ve submitted. It’s especially hard news to deliver when readers have poured their hearts and souls into eulogies for churches that have closed. It’s a sign of the times that we’re getting more and more of them.

As Toronto journalist John Barber writes in this month’s cover story, “The perils of redevelopment," the United Church is closing churches at a rate of about one a week; untold others are on life-support. Barber focuses on the often-perilous business of repurposing underused or surplus church real estate. You’d be surprised at the opposition congregations encounter from neighbours and municipalities as they try to mine new life out of their old buildings.

Repurposing is mostly an urban phenomenon and almost always involves some sort of housing development. Properties need to be big enough and potential buyers or renters plentiful enough for the projects to make economic sense. In places where redevelopment isn’t viable, congregations can only close the doors and say goodbye.

These are the churches Rev. Trisha Elliott has in mind in two companion pieces to Barber’s story (see print edition). Elliott argues that church buildings, even those on their last legs, are not real estate in the conventional sense of the term. Church buildings mean something. They echo with the joys and sorrows of generations. They are vessels for shared spiritual experiences, and anchors for the communities that surround them. When they close, people grieve.

Part of grieving is sharing a sense of loss with others. I think that’s why we receive so many articles about church closings. But here’s the problem: if we published one, in fairness we’d have to publish them all. That would make for a pretty mournful magazine.

Be assured, however, that we do read and consider them all. In many ways, they inspired Barber’s and Elliott’s stories. A particularly heartfelt adieu arrived as we were starting to put this month’s issue together. It came from Margaret Campbell of Toronto. Campbell is 89, a charter member of the United Church Women at Iondale Heights United in the city’s east end. The church closed a year ago; Campbell wondered if we would publish a short article she had written describing the congregation’s farewell dinner and reminiscing about the ministers who had served the church over its 60-year lifespan, as well as some of its more prominent lay people. Campbell was gracious when we explained why we couldn’t use it.

My guess is that Campbell, like others who send us eulogies, mostly wanted to do something for a church she misses terribly. You can’t place flowers on the grave of a closed church, so she put her pen to paper. I also suspect that, like the others, the closing of Iondale United marked a personal milestone for her. Most of us would rather be young than not, and would prefer the things that define our youth to stay young with us. But the world doesn’t work that way. So as we age, we acknowledge passages.

Much of the country was still in the grip of a relentless winter when Campbell contacted us. I could sense a late-winter melancholy in her article, nowhere more so than in her concluding paragraph. She spoke for everyone who mourns the loss of a church when she wrote, “If I look outside my window, I can see Iondale Heights United Church. It’s still standing, but now it’s just a building. It was the people who made this church special: doctors, lawyers, police officers, carpenters, councillors, nurses, teachers. We had them all. It’s the people of Iondale I’ll remember.”  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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