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.