Tiny St. Peter’s in Wickham has a will to live
By Gisele McKnight
They do things a little differently at St. Peter’s church in Wickham.
Quincy, a pointer-Bernese mountain dog mix, is kept company by a couple of other dogs during the Sunday morning service.
Joining them are six or eight people on a usual day. That’s up from two a few years ago. There were 10 there on a recent Sunday morning.
Layreader Pam MacKay does the Morning Prayer, and her husband, Gary reads a sermon that’s been emailed to him by the Rev. Chris VanBuskirk in Moncton.
There is no music, so they sing their favourite hymns a cappella, and yes, they take requests from the floor.
Most Sundays, there is no offering taken up. A prayer for a sick community member can turn into a 15-minute conversation.
And after a scripture is read, “we often stop and talk about it. And the Lord always has somebody there who can explain it,” said Cathy Upshall.
This is church in Wickham, and that handful of people is making it work.
While other near-empty churches in the diocese and across Canada are facing financial challenges and closure, St. Peter’s has a claim to fame no doubt envied by many: it has no debt. In fact, it has money in the bank.
“For all the little churches — and there’s a lot of them — this is a possible model,” said Chris.
The money mystery
Gary MacKay is what some describe as the backbone of the church. Retired from a career in transportation, he maintains it, gets the stove going on Sunday mornings and acts as its treasurer. He says the church is financially sound for two reasons: “We heat with wood, and the wood is donated, and we don’t have water. Water needs power.”
The electricity bill is $15 in the summer, and $40 in the winter, when they use some baseboard heaters. They align themselves with the Church of Nerepis in Grand-Bay for insurance purposes, one of their few bills.
Eight years ago, when Pam MacKay came back home with her husband, Gary, they went to church to, as Gary said, meet their neighbours and find out what was going on in the community.
They found three people at church — Chris, Mary Robinson and Bertha Jackson. Chris was there once a month to do Holy Communion.
The women were overjoyed to have their congregation double. Soon after, Gary and Pam took over the church finances and others began to attend.
The church’s sound finances are something of a mystery to its tiny congregation. People hand over money on a regular basis — and not just parishioners. At Bishop David Edwards’ visit last fall, there were about 25 people in attendance and $500 in the offering plate.
When the new roof was being installed, a man came to the site, had a chat, and returned with $200. “I like what you’re doing,” he told Gary.
At the beginning of 2014, St. Peter’s had about $2,000 in the bank, gave away about $3,000 throughout the year, and still has $3,000.
“Every year we fill a stable at Christmas for World Vision,” said Cathy. “We give a lot of money away, but for the life of me I don’t know where it comes from.”
Donations include support for the local volunteer fire department, and recently, a $500 cheque to a couple who were destitute as the husband’s terminal illness impacted the household.
Cathy told her fellow parishioners about their plight. “What a joy! Nobody said, ‘oh, let’s think about this.’
“There’s a giving attitude,” said Cathy. “The Lord just keeps providing — there’s not that many of us!”
It’s clear God is blessing this little church.
“What we receive is more than what these people are giving,” said Gary.
Bertha Jackson has watched her little church grow and change for its entire 60-year history. She was the church’s first bride in 1956 and these days she’s there every Sunday.
“If I missed church it didn’t make any difference, but now I just can’t miss it,” she said. “Some Sundays it was just Chris, Mary and me.”
She admits to being leery at one point about her church’s future, “but everything came together. It’s just wonderful. I love that church so much. We all do.”
Years ago, it was Canon Buckland who had a soft spot for the little church. Posted in Gagetown, he came to Wickham as often as possible to conduct services.
“He drove in all kinds of weather, and even across the ice (of the St. John River),” she said.
Now it’s Chris who has filled those shoes.
Payment in pickles and jams
It’s clear the parishioners have a soft spot for their part-time, unofficial pastor. “We love Chris,” said Cathy. “I don’t know why he loves us so, but he does. We can’t even give him any gas money. If we do, it mysteriously reappears as a donation.”
They often pay him in homemade pickles and jams.
Chris became involved because of his family’s cottage in Wickham. After several churches closed in the area in the early 2000s, St. Peter’s managed to carry on monthly with Chris doing Holy Communion. After Gary and Pam became involved, a few more people started coming and the congregation took over the other Sundays. Even Chris’s father, Cecil, comes up every couple of months to help out.
The church wasn’t so much built as cobbled together in 1954, literally from pieces of St. Peter’s in Headline, a community lost during the construction of CFB Gagetown. The new St. Peter’s got the furniture, lights, doors and windows.
But the church had been growing derelict in the past decade, and parishioners decided on some upgrades. They have the new roof, a new chimney, new electrical panel, had the beautiful historic doors renewed (by Gary), were given a bell from the church in Public Landing — the only bell in the community — and built a wheelchair ramp to accommodate the mother of the bride at last year’s wedding.
Gary sought help from his brother, and with donations, they built the ramp for just over $1,700. But a $1,700 ramp for one person might be judged extravagant.
“Well, I’m not getting any younger, and neither is anyone else,” said Gary, who obviously views it as an investment.
A church in action
So why do a handful of people pour their hearts and souls into a church that will probably never be full, and never have a full-time pastor?
“I care about this place and I care about the people,” said Gary. “This is a very intimate, caring place for the congregation and the community.”
For Cathy, it’s simple: “You feel you’re part of a family that cares.”
And for Chris, “It’s really about the people there. It’s the church in action.”
St. Peter’s will never be a church filled to overflowing every Sunday morning. There just aren’t enough people in the community, particularly in the winter. So it’s unlikely it will ever need an expansion, or even a priest. But for now, it’s thriving in its own way, bringing a tiny community together, making do with what it has and generously donating to the needy.
“It’s completely a mission church,” said Chris.
Gisele McKnight is the communications officer for the Diocese of Fredericton.
10 February 2015