Despite the closure of Sandy Hill’s St. Paul’s-Eastern United Church, it is important to understand that only the church building as a place of worship has ceased to operate. While the building will be sold, its small but hopeful congregation are actively exploring options for continuing its faith journey. Supporting them is Rev. Boyd Drake, a retired minister from Aylmer with transitional expertise, hired after the November 2020 retirement of Rev. Laurie McKnight.
“In terms of transition or interim ministry, I think every church is in transition. Churches are dealing with issues they never thought they would ever have to deal with such as selling their buildings and a lack of attendance,” said Rev. Drake recently about his work supporting congregations. He was the minister at Carleton Memorial United Church, near Hogs Back, until his 2016 retirement. Since then, he has helped a number of churches in the National Capital Region.
St. Paul’s-Eastern, located at the corner of Cumberland and Daly, has deep roots in the community. Originating as a Presbyterian church in 1845 and then amalgamating with a nearby Methodist church in 1925 to become part of the new United Church of Canada, SPEU has been a spiritual, cultural, and community hub. While the church originally closed its doors for worship because of COVID-19, this also forced the congregation’s decision to part with their spiritual home after years of financial headaches, a problem for many Canadian churches.
“A lot of the hard work was already done by this congregation by the time I arrived,” Rev. Drake said about the decision to sell the church building. “That’s probably the hardest thing to do because people are attached to their buildings.”
After trying to sell the building without success, the congregation voted to sell it through the United Property Resource Program of the United Church of Canada. It remains to be seen what will eventually occupy the building. Currently, a City-run respite centre operates out of the church lower hall. A farewell ceremony for the church building has yet to be planned.
“My job is not to do the work the congregation needs to do itself, but to offer some spiritual and theological reflection on what they’re doing, and where they are with God in this journey,” said Rev. Drake, who will work with the congregation part-time until late June 2021. “There’s some pretty strong leadership in the congregation. They know what they’re doing and I’m not going to mess with that.”
Rev. Blake is in the unique position of never meeting his newest congregation in person Ñ such is life under pandemic restrictions. However, three times each month he draws the community together in worship on Zoom. These services are later uploaded to the church’s YouTube channel.
“I’m really aware that I’m not a resident of Sandy Hill and that all of my connection with the community and the church has been online,” he said. “The connection to Sandy Hill and the sense that their church was part of the community is very significant to them.”