Days Gone By: Built Heritage and Church Closures

Memories can be deeply connected to a specific place or building. When a place that is the foundation of many memories is closed, dismantled, or significantly changed it can be challenging for those who hold the place dear.  Last week I attended the closing service a local united church.  It was an emotional and moving morning that highlighted the power of place to invoke collective memory.

The closure of this church is not unique – United Churches (and churches of all the main stream Christian denominations) are struggling across Canada with declining membership and declining financial resources.  The closure of United Churches is currently so common place that the United Church of Canada (UCC) has published a Liturgy for the Closing of a Church and has openly discussed how to support congregations that seeing their church building being closed.

The service I attended borrowed bit from the liturgy published by the UCC. There were many opportunities for people to share memories about the building and much laughter and a few tears were seen throughout the morning.  The building was full to capacity with extra seating added in the aisle and people standing at the back.  A stark change from the average Sunday of recent years where 15-20 people in attendance was the norm.

The huge number of people who returned from far away or who came from neighbouring communities to attend the closing speaks to the importance of place and how memories are often intertwined with built heritage.  Churches were once meeting places for communities, locations where all important life events were marked, and central in the day to day functioning of communities.

As congregations dwindle or amalgamate the question of what to do with the church building comes to forefront.  Deciding the fate of a building that is so connected to a community’s identity is not an easy task.  Discussions around church closure can divide congregations and be emotional for all involved.  Place is a powerful thing.

In the case of the little white church in Little Rapids the congregation has amalgamated with another local United Church and will worship in a larger church ten minutes away.  These two congregations had been part of a two-point pastoral charge for a number of years and have been holding joint services for the past few years.  This may not make the loss of a building any easier but it perhaps makes the congregational transition easier.

For now the  church still sits intact – the portable furnishings will be re-purposed -but the exterior of the building remains untouched.  A for sale sign sits on the front lawn and the future of the building sits in limbo.  For now the closed church sits as visual reminder for the local community of days gone by.

Time Capsule History

I was recently listening to a speaker who used time capsules as the introductory hook in his talk.  His description of time capsules focused on finding previously lost historical knowledge, the excitement of opening time capsules and the ability of time capsules to speak about the era they were created in.

The idea of finding a hidden piece of history and bringing it to light reminds me a lot of Indian Jones, treasure hunting and successful archival finds.   But, all I could think of when the speaker was using time capsules as an analogy was how vulnerable materials in poorly constructed time capsules are. 

All things deteriorate with time. Ideal preservation conditions can increase the lifespan of historical documents and artifacts.  But the items enclosed in a time capsule that a grade five class made themselves and buried for future grade five class might not have a great hope of extended survival.  Similarly, the digital mediums today will most likely not be usable in 50 years, making DVDs and CDs placed in time capsules rather useless. 

The time capsule analogy is an interesting one.  But I think it could be more aptly used to describe the fragile nature of human memory, the written word and our conceptions of history.  Our insights into the past are limited by what is left behind — records, artifacts, oral histories, and material culture.  Like a poorly constructed time capsule, aspects of history that we don’t actively aim to preserve often grow dim and fade into dust. 

Similarly, a time capsule only shows a glimpse into an era.  Often the contents of a time capsule are include because they hold significance to the creator of the capsule.  But that significance or an explanation of the context surrounding the item are very rarely included inside the capsule.   The items in a time capsule are like random bits of historical information, they have the potential to be important but without more information it’s hard to tell what their actual value is. 

On the other hand, I remember being very excited as a child about the idea of creating and saving something for future students who might attend the elementary school.  Time capsules are a neat way of engaging the public with the past, they just need to be approached with a bit of knowledge about preservation and history.

Photo Credits: QuesterMark and Jessica Wilson

Government Apologies and Collective Memory

The past couple of weeks have been filled with government apologies for historical wrongs. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Air India, and Bloody Sunday Inquiry have all been prominent in the news recently.

What significance do public apologies for historic wrongs have? Government apologies have the potential to remind the general public of events long past. It is unlikely that people directly impacted by Bloody Sunday or the residential school system are going to forget the horror of these events. However, people not alive during these events or who have not felt the repercussion of them can easily forget the past. Public apologies, inquires, and general discussion about past wrongs bring events back into public view and help raise awareness regarding atrocities and past mistakes. For years, the issue of residential schools was glossed over in public schools. In recent years a movement towards acknowledgment of past wrongs has contributed to an increase in educating Canadians at large about this moment in our past.

However, apologies are often about controlling the collective memory of a particular event. Apologies for historic wrongs are often politically motivated and can be seen as a step towards reconciliation. Apologies add another dimension to the history of a particular events. It allows the government to be seen as taking proactive action against the past.

Is an apology sufficient when an entire community was wronged? Of course not. Is it a step in the right direction to addressing the problem? Perhaps. They can be a starting point for reconciliation but apologies need to be accompanied by actual action.

For another look at government sponsored apologies see Laura Madokoro’s post “Giving Voice To History” on activehistory.ca