“For those of you who have called St. Paul’s your home, I say this to you: God is not done with you.”
The Reverend Douglas Reble, assistant to Bishop Michael Pryse, made this observation during his address to the people of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church during the ceremony of formal leave-taking.
Interim pastor, the Reverend Diane Raddatz, joined Reble in officiating at this unique service.
On Sunday morning, October 25, 2015, after nearly a century and a half as part of the South Dundas community, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church ritually closed its doors.
The venerable church was filled with people, old and young. Some were long time members of the Lutheran parish: others were in the pews because they felt they needed to be there, to say farewell.
The last service was a bittersweet time for everyone.
The decision to close the church was a hard one, reached this spring by the congregation after months of discussion and soul-searching. However, leaving St. Paul’s is, as Richard Casselman, 50 years in the church, put it, “like leaving home.”
Rev. Reble reminded the parishioners that “God is here today with you all.”
There were many memories shared during and after the service.
Bob Howald, whose father the Rev. Ferdinand Howald was pastor at St. Paul’s from 1946 to 1974, talked a little about the building itself.
“This church has seen, we calculate, probably 8,000 regular services over the last 140 years,” Howald said. “And that doesn’t include special events like christenings, marriages and funerals.”
He described how the brick work of St. Paul’s, erected on site in 1875, was known as architecturally eclectic. There were also Gothic and Tuscan themes to the structure, particularly the bell tower, “where some brave souls had to climb up to do repairs at times.”
Several beautiful stained glass windows circle the sanctuary, most dedicated by members of the congregation. The stunning mural behind the altar was a major project.
Howald spoke of the transition of the building from burning wood to the installation of an oil stove, and the eventual addition of electricity to the structure.
The Castleman Memorial Parish Hall was built and dedicated at the height of the Great Depression, a sign of the congregation’s determination and dedication to their church.
“We have dealt with many changes over these nearly 150 years,” Bob Howald said. “We will continue to accept change as we go on.”
St. Paul’s has seen many, many pastors over its decades. All left their marks on the church and in the community.
One of the most significant events in the story of St. Paul’s was the appointment of the Reverend Pamela Jo McGee as pastor.
Her formal ordination was unprecedented and made history.
May 7, 1967, McGee, of St. Paul’s parish, Morrisburg, became the first woman ever to be ordained in the Lutheran Church in Canada.
On October 14, 2015, with the leave-taking ceremony only two weeks away, a group of some long time members of St. Paul’s sat down with me in the Parish Hall. They simply shared personal memories and stories of the church many of them had grown up in and still belonged to.
Their collective years of membership are impressive.
Marie Barkley, whom they all described as a stalwart of the church, deeply committed to St. Paul’s, was unable to attend the gathering. But her fellow parishioners said she was “there in spirit.”
Bob Howald, Lois Rosenquist, Fanny and Richard Casselman, Raymond Guindon and Muriel Van Allen had many memories to share.
Muriel Van Allen, who taught Sunday school for years, recalled the shelf she had once had installed in the Sunday school room to hold several heavy books. The shelf may have been a bit makeshift.
“I had this one boy, well, he was a bit of a rascal. He decided one Sunday to climb that shelf like a staircase,” she laughed. “It crashed down, a lot of noise, and buried him in books. I can remember thinking, oh I hope Gerry (Dr. Rosenquist) is in church so he can patch him up. I found out the boy’s mother was not impressed. She said he deserved every bruise.”
That reminded Muriel of the “lovely wooden horse Graham Van Allen made for the Sunday School.”
Others is the group also remembered the horse. Apparently the idea was that “Jesus” could ride this horse (subbing for a donkey) in the Sunday School Palm Sunday procession. Unfortunately, the horse was not especially mobile.
“Basically, you had to drag the horse up the church aisle. People were tugging on the rope in front and pushing from behind to budge it, with “Jesus” holding on tight, to get it up the aisle.”
“I remember pageants at the church,” said Lois Rosenquist. “Every year a new group of children would act out the Nativity story. They called the Wise Men the Three Wise Guys. Muriel kept all the costumes at her house.”
“And they’re still there,” Muriel promptly added.
Bob Howald, who was a ‘Preacher’s Kid’ had a special perspective on the church.
“I wasn’t supposed to do what the other village kids did. We had more restrictions than other kids. My dad (Rev. Ferdinand Howald) preached, my mom played the organ. Every Sunday we had the English service in the morning, and the German service at night. Many of our settlers were German, and most of us spoke some German.
Of course, that all stopped when War broke out.”
“Even after the War,” said Richard Casselman, “there was still a stigma attached to German immigrants. It took time.”
“Gerry still remembers walking down the streets of Morrisburg and being amazed that English was being spoken. We all spoke German in the little villages we came from,” Lois said.
The ordination of Rev. Pamela McGee was an event the whole group remembered as an incredibly exciting time in St. Paul’s history.
Church ladies hand made her a special red surplice with a white dove on it for her service. Because she was the first female Lutheran minister in Canada, her ordination was a huge event. The Bishop and many church officials attended. The service had to be held in the Morrisburg arena to accommodate the crowds.
“I remember her saying that it was like a ‘wedding day’ for her,” Lois said. “It was historic.”
And then there was church food.
“Boy, Lutherans are famous for food,” said Ray Guindon, “and I for one, love to eat.”
Octoberfest was a recent fund raising event at St. Paul’s. But the entire community came to the church to enjoy the dinner. Sausage and sauerkraut and German salad topped the fare, and the celebration became part of the church outreach.
There were also fond memories of the church building.
“When this church was founded, there was a dirt road in front of it,” Richard said. “Everything seemed crowded around the altar.”
“We had an old pump organ, and someone actually had to get down and work it before anyone could play it,” Bob recalled.
“Bats really liked our church,” Richard remembered.
“They loved the insulation here,” Ray added. “I think they wintered in our building. I was always nervous whenever I saw a piece of insulation that wiggled. And when Rev. Jo wanted to clean out the attic, it was full of bat droppings.”
“We found a bat hanging on one of the windows in the Hall,” said Fanny Casselman. “It seemed as if when you got them out in one place, they just came back in another.”
The Church steeple also summoned some memories.
“You know, our original steeple was actually hit by lightning,” said Bob Howald.
“Our current steeple is definitely a lot shorter,” laughed Richard.
“Someone actually had to paint the high tower, the louvres,” Bob said. “They were hung out the window suspended on a rope. Scary.”
And the old wood stove once part of the church also reminded people of an earlier time.
“I would come home to Christmas and for other special events,” Bob remembered, “and find a layer of smoke, just like a fog, three feet high, around the church. That didn’t vanish until after the Seaway, when the new furnace was put in.”
I asked the group what they would miss now that St. Paul’s was going to close.
They spoke of the coziness of the building, its beautiful acoustics, the stained glass windows that each told a story in their dedications. They talked of clergy and families and heritage.
“It will be a sad day when this church closes,” said Richard Casselman. “I think the people of Morrisburg will remember this church as a monument. I hope the building is never knocked down. It that ever happens, I hope I’m not around.”
“We are still together as one congregation,” said Lois Rosenquist.
“This is a church that has been here for years, and people, even ones who didn’t go here, well, they’re going to miss it,” said Bob Howald.
Reverend Norine Gullons sent a special letter to the congregation to be read at the last service.
“I think of you all and keep you in my prayers…I believe God will protect and guide you. Stay alert and be watchful for God’s work in you and the others around you.
May God grant you grace and wisdom at this time of endings and beginnings.”
Following a final sharing of the peace, and the last service of communion, Reverends Reble and Raddatz spoke the words of parting, declaring the building to now be vacated.
“St Paul’s closes its doors today,” said Rev. Reble, “and there is sadness. But you have done nothing wrong. You have honoured your legacy…
Carry that legacy of faith with you. Be the people who serve God and your neighbours…
God has promised you a blessing, and he will meet you on the journey.”