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Apr. 21, 2019 | Sunday
Local News
Four Old Town churches collaborate for faith and action
The ministers of the four old town churches have revived the tradition of holding ecumenical services for Lent and Good Friday. From left: Randy Gallant, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church; Maureen Ellison, Grace United Church; William Roberts, St. Mark’s Anglican Church and Virginia Head, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. (Tim Taylor/Special)

Through the weeks leading up to Easter, Niagara’s four old town churches gather together each Friday, for an ecumenical (meaning: representing the whole body of churches) Lenten service and light lunch. 

The five special weekly services acknowledge the common aspirations of the four faith communities and create opportunities for stronger community action on a number of fronts. 

These collegial spiritual celebrations are not new in Niagara, but three of the four old town churches have recently arrived clergy, bringing a renewed enthusiasm for collaboration.

The series culminates in a single Good Friday service, for all four parishes, this year at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, on Friday April 19 at 11 a.m.

Father Randy Gallant is the longest serving of the four ministers, arriving at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in 2012, from nine years at a parish in Fort Erie.

Gallant and his parishioners are pleased the longstanding tradition of ecumenical Lenten services has been restarted. “We’re getting fifty or more people each week and more than 20 come from St. Vincent de Paul,” Gallant notes with evident pride.

Gallant says that while there are differences in theology, the combined congregations all worship from the same scripture. “The faith component is our top priority. But anytime people can come together you are also building community.”

Because Niagara-on-the-Lake is a small town, Gallant believes the task of building common interests is easier. “With just the four churches it is easier to connect, compared say, to larger cities.”

Virginia Head is the rector of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. She and her husband Gregory arrived in Niagara a year ago from Peterborough to lead one of Niagara’s oldest churches. 

The first St. Andrew’s built in 1794, burned during the War of 1812 and was rebuilt in its largely current form by the 1840’s.

This year Head successfully urged the four parishes to broaden the ecumenical initiative beyond one single Good Friday service, to the five Fridays of Lent. 

And the combined parishes are considering further collaboration. “We’re talking about getting together and laying a Remembrance Day wreath,” she says. “We’re going to build it forward from here. Through unity we present a stronger voice.

“We’re in the incubation stages of starting to get this off the ground. I hope over time that we could work together to support causes of common interest.”

Maureen Ellison, minister of Grace United Church, accepted her new charge in Niagara, just five months ago. 

Ellison jokes that coming from Prince Edward County, she’s just ventured from one wine country to another. “I’m really not just chasing good wine,” she says with a smile.

For her, the ecumenical effort has an extra more personal value. “It’s helping me to get to know people in town very quickly. We’re all walking the same road. It’s just that we’re coming from different places.”

Ellison agrees that there may well be strength in numbers. She’s looking for opportunities to work with her parishioners and her local church colleagues to have a greater collective impact. 

“The United Church has historically not been shy about engaging community issues,” she says. “And we still do.”

Father William Roberts came to St. Mark’s Anglican Church just over two years ago. St. Mark’s is the province’s oldest parish, dating back to 1792, having just celebrated its 225th Anniversary in 2017.

Roberts has been associated with parishes across Canada, including positions in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. 

Roberts acknowledges the spiritual value of the ecumenical services. But he also emphasizes the powerful opportunities for four parishes working together in the community interest.

“Churches working together is a sign to the rest of the community—in our challenging times—about what it is to collaborate in achieving important things,” Roberts says. “Communities are healthier when we work together. We have an opportunity to show leadership.”

Roberts lists some of the things that might be addressed by the four parishes: the challenges of the area’s Caribbean workers; affordable housing, environmental issues, palliative care needs and so on. 

“We want to go beyond sharing the fruit festivals,” he laughs. “We could even meet with Town Council and offer support for addressing appropriate local issues. We’re exploring all the opportunities.”

Each of the four faith leaders express their aspirations a little differently. But it is clear, it will be their similar interests that will drive their future ecumenical activities.

The final Friday Lenten service and lunch takes place at St. Mark’s on Friday, April 12 at noon. The Good Friday service for all old town parishes will be held at St. Andrew’s on Friday, April 19 at 11 a.m.

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