Goodbye, but never forgotten

Linda Scales

Another Sandy Hill church will be closing. Historic St. Paul’s-Eastern United, a spiritual and community hub on the corner of Daly Avenue and Cumberland Street, will be following the 2014 closure of the former All Saints Anglican Church and Lowertown neighbour, the former Saint Brigid’s Catholic Church, in 2007.

Although years of financial headaches and a dwindling congregation put a strain on church operations—both concerns of many Canadian churches—the COVID-19 pandemic sealed the deal. “The pandemic is not the reason for selling, but it just made the logistics more challenging,” says Rev. Laurie McKnight, SPE’s minister for the past 11 years. “Both financial and human resources were getting a bit thin and made the ministry unsustainable.”

(A CBC report, in spring 2019, about church closures, predicted 9,000 churches and other faith-owned buildings in Canada would close over the next ten years.)

While SPE is physically closed due to the pandemic, “a final farewell ceremony for the church building” hasn’t happened yet. “The congregation approved the selling of the building to the national United Church (United Property Resource Corporation),” says Rev. Laurie. “It will handle the sale and also assign a property management company to look after it.” Like All Saints, before being bought by a group of investors and transformed into community event space, and Saint Brigid’s, before being turned into an arts centre by members of Ottawa’s Irish community—at this early juncture, it remains to be seen how the church building will be used.

SPE’s congregation of approximately 111 has elected to stay together and are looking for a partnership with an Ottawa-area United Church. A part-time minister, Rev. Boyd Drake, will begin in January 2021 to help the church and its people over the hurdles of transition.

One of Ottawa’s oldest congregations

SPE’s origins go back to 1845 with St. Paul’s Presbyterian, which built the present-day building, finishing it in 1889. In 1925, the congregations of St. Paul’s and the nearby Eastern Methodist Church amalgamated to become “St. Paul’s-Eastern United Church” and join the new United Church of Canada. It is the only church of that denomination in Sandy Hill with worshippers coming from across the city and Western Quebec. It also attracted university students away from home.

St. Paul’s-Eastern, located near the University of Ottawa, has long been a home and gathering place for spiritual, cultural and community gatherings. In addition to weekly worship, the church was the location for choir practice, Bible studies, and popular social gatherings such as SPE’s annual ham and scalloped potato dinner. Outside organizations used the church’s facilities, too, for activities such as the Ottawa Mission’s Discovery University, and meetings by Jericho Road, the Fringe Festival, Odawa Native Friendship Centre Food Bank and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Photo Hilary Duff

New direction for Rev. Laurie

The Rev. Laurie McKnight has been Minister of St. Paul’s-Eastern United Church since 2009.

Meanwhile, Rev. Laurie retired at the end of November 2020, a delay of her original plan to leave 18 months ago. “I had been through amalgamation before, in Kingston, and it’s challenging. I was feeling depleted,” she says. “I thought it was better to let someone new, with the skills and energy, take over.”

St. Paul’s-Eastern has given her many positive experiences, among them the church’s music ministry, the evolving ecumenical work among the Sandy Hill churches (such as Open Table for university students), developing good relationships with the local Indigenous and Inuit communities, and SPE’s family-styled congregation which was “both a gift and a strength.” On the other hand, NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) prevails and challenges St. Paul’s-Eastern’s ministry of the homeless, opening up Rev. Laurie to vicious and personal email attacks. “That’s been the hardest,” she says.

Rev. Laurie’s retirement plans are geared towards establishing a new direction for herself and helping her family with the pressures caused by the pandemic. After serving the church for 37 years, she looks forward to revitalizing herself with something creative, such as learning to paint, and “finding a balance in life between reflection and action.”

“I first came to Sandy Hill in 1974 to start my first job after graduation from Queen’s,” she says. “It was two weeks after my father died, so it was a time of change, a time of healing, and new beginnings. When I came to St. Paul’s-Eastern in 2009, it felt like an important return.”

“It’s been an honour to spend the last years of my ministry in this community,” she says. “It’s been a blessing.” Starting on December 1, she’s looking forward to seeing what it’s like being just “Laurie.”