Congregation founded in 1880 disbands after over 100 years
Tony Thompson looked out at the congregation from the pulpit Sunday morning with a smile.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve had to turn my head side to side to see you all,” the reverend doctor said.
The church, for the first time in many Sundays, was packed. Every row was occupied, with a few people even sitting in the balcony. The mood was unusually solemn for a Sunday service at Wesley United Church, which celebrates with piano, drums and song each weekend.
But Sunday was different. Sunday was the last time this congregation would gather in this building to celebrate and pray together.
Thompson paused and took a breath.
“It’s a sad day, he said, but it’s also a momentous day.”
The final service of the Wesley United Church congregation had begun.
Wesley began as a Methodist Congregation in 1880, and was named after the Wesley Brothers, John and Charles. John founded the Methodist denomination, and Charles was famous for his hymnody.
As the congregation grew, it bought property on what is now First Avenue East and 11th Street, and build a new, wooden-framed church on the corner, the site where the current building still sits today.
The church was renamed Wesley United Church when the Methodist congregation voted to join the United Church of Canada in 1925.
After the war, the church had as many as 600 attend on Sunday, and the congregation decided to build the current red-brick building, containing a sanctuary, lower hall and offices. The upper and lower hall of the Christian Education wing was added in the early 1960s.
As the congregation dwindled, and Thompson, who came to the city 15 years ago, moved closer to retirement, the decision was made to close the church and end the congregation.
The United Church and the Catholic Church share at least one thing in common, other than both being a Christian denomination.
Both faith traditions follow the same lectionary, a cycle of Old and New Testament readings assigned to each week in the calendar year.
Thompson usually follows the lectionary fairly closely.
“I discovered that rather than talking about my favourite readings, it forced me to do other readings,” he said.
But Sunday was different. Every reading, every song, was chosen for a purpose.
The week prior, for his retirement celebration, Thompson and choir director Phyllis McTaggart chose some of their favourites.
This weekend, they chose the classic hymns, church tunes anyone who has stepped inside a Christian church of just about any denomination would recognize, almost in an ode to the congregation’s long history.
Thompson was very deliberate with his choice of readings too.
He picked Micah 6:6-8 (“What does the Lord require”) and Mark 16:9-18 (“Go throughout the whole world”). But he started with Moses and the burning bush. He also turned to that reading with his sermon. He explored the text. It was not the land the bush was on that was holy, he said, but the ground on which Moses was standing.
The church, the old brick building on First Avenue East, Thompson said, is just like that bush. Burning, but not consumed.
“It’s only holy when our feet are upon it,” he said.
“The ground beneath our feet, wherever we are, is holy ground.”
With the closure of their church imminent, and not wanting to see the building turn into another parking lot, the congregation began brainstorming ways the property could continue its mission of serving others.
They proposed a high-rise residence for seniors, but couldn’t find any developers to get on board with the idea.
Then, the YWCA came calling.
They made an offer, and Wesley accepted.
Monday, the moving van came so Thompson and others could clear the building and make way for the Y.
On Sunday, Thompson had spoken of the congregation’s history speaking out against apartheid, advocating for women’s rights and, more recently, working to welcome the LGBTQ community and reaching out to First Nations communities.
It was appropriate, then that the church would become the home of the YWCA’s settlement services, which serves government-sponsored refugees who come to Prince Albert.
“I think if you’re going to pass it on to anybody that’s a good place to pass it on to,” said congregant Doris Lund.
“I hope and pray they are very, very successful in their pursuits.”
Her thoughts were echoed by long-time congregant Joan Parker, who said it was “wonderful” the building would be used by the YWCA.
“I don’t think we could have anything nicer than being used for what it is. It’s still going to serve the community in a nice way it’s meant to.”
For the United Church, it was key that the building still serves its purpose.
“We were very much into outreach into welcoming people into the community,” Thompson said.
“We feel this building is getting used for what it was dedicated for. Even though there’s no worship service here, it’s still being used for what’s important to the community.”
Like the building, the mission of the congregation will also live on. Thompson made that clear in his final sermon.
“Go out into the world, move your feet onto holy ground … and live the good news that is yours to carry and use,” he said.
“We carry our faith, our hope and our love with us.”
That message was provided some solace for Parker and Lund.
“We have to try,” Lund said. “That’s all we can do.”
For Parker, who got married at the church, baptized her children there and held the funeral for her husband at Wesley, it’s like saying goodbye to part of her life.
“This is just a place to meet, — the church is out there where we’re helping,” she said.
“That’s the important thing. Knowing that, it’s not so terribly hard to go to another building.”
Thompson wasn’t the only minister leading Sunday’s service.
He was joined Duane Mohn, who was designated as the one who would lead the congregation in the decommissioning of their place of worship.
Thompson jokingly called him “disbander in chief.”
Mohn called himself the Grinch.
He thanked Thompson for his years of service to the community.
He then led the congregation, following along with the printed program, in a prayer to say goodbye to their beloved church and to move on to another faith community.
“Today, we acknowledge that the congregation itself, known as Wesley United Church, will cease to exist,” he read.
“We commend to the YWCA of Prince Albert this building together with the land on which it stands and all the objects remaining in it. We declare that it is no longer the place of meeting of a congregation of the United Church of Canada.”
The congregation responded.
The prayer continued.
“We thank you, God, for this place,” the congregation said, “and for all the memories it holds for us. Into your hands we commit our future.”
Mohn passed the service back to Thompson for the closing prayer, and then, the choir took over.
McTaggart had just the anthem for the occasion – homeward bound.
“We love the song. We’ve sung it lots,” she said.
“It binds us together.”
The congregation joined in for ‘We Shall Go Out’.
And after 138 years, for one last time, the choir sang.
“In the quiet misty morning
when the moon has gone to bed,
when the sparrows stop their singing,
I’ll be homeward bound again.”
“We shall go out
From strength to strength go on
We shall go out,
and tell our stories boldly
Tales of a love
That will not let us go.”