Final Farewell at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

There was sadness, but also many wonderful shared memories among the parishioners and visitors and clergy as St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Riverside  Heights held its last service and officially closed its doors on Sunday, July 17. 

The Rev. Joachim Barkley-Probst, interim pastor of St. John’s, began the formal leave-taking with the words “As this congregation, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, concludes its time together, grant that we may ever follow in the way, the truth and the life of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord.” 

Officiating with Barkley-Probst at the service were the Rev. Dr. Michael Pryse, Bishop of the Eastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Rev. Guenter Dahle, Synod Property Consultant.

St. John’s Lutheran history goes back well over 200 years. 

The original Williamsburg township church was founded by the Rev. Johann Schwerdtfeger, a native of Bavaria. While he lived and preached for some time in New York, the Lutheran pastor, loyal to the Crown, had to leave the United States following the American War of Independence. His descendants are still members of the Lutheran congregation of St. John’s. 

The original frame church was eventually replaced by a brick church. The present Riverside Heights St. John’s was built by Hydro at the time of the Seaway. The old brick church was torn down, although its religious contents and records were carefully saved in the new building. The Lutheran Manse, once in Morrisburg, is now preserved at Upper Canada Village.

Bishop Pryse, in his sermon, praised the history and the extraordinary accomplishments of St. John’s.

“Yours is an amazing tale. You are the only congregation among our Eastern Synod who had to face the changes brought by the Seaway. You were the first church to officially ordain a woman pastor. In 1984, you celebrated 200 years of Lutheran ministry. You folks had such courage to step up and do these things.”

Unfortunately the last several years took a toll on St. John’s. 

Its shrinking and aging congregation and the ever rising costs of repairing and preserving the church building could not be denied. Last year, the congregational council made the decision, hard though it was, to close St. John’s. 

Bishop Pryse acknowledged the emotional costs of that decision.

“How many have been touched by the Gospel in this church? How many blessings have been bestowed in this place? Yet your congregation did the right thing when you made the decision. We must acknowledge change. There was no shame in the decision. No blame. Nothing wrong was done. God cannot be locked into the past, confined in a building.

 Ours is a living God. And we are reminded that this is God’s church, God’s ministry and God’s will – not ours.”

There was much music throughout the final service. Rev. Jo sang a song he had composed 25 years ago reminding people that God is “the Vine and we are the branches.” 

“You know what this church has meant to you and to this community,” Bishop Pryse said. “It is your spiritual home – you have laughed here, prayed, loved, and yes, sometimes even fought here. Though this is a sad day, it is fitting that we still mark it with joy and thanksgiving.”

Following a congregational communion, the Bishop, Rev. Jo and Rev. Guenter officially closed the church. However the Registers of over 200 years of families, marriages, burials and births were turned over to Synod where “the memory of this congregation will be remembered and preserved.”

Bishop Pryse reminded all those in attendance at the last service held in St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church  that “God is always there. He always cares. Being partners in God’s enterprise does not end today. That mission continues.” 

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