As the building formerly known as St. Aidan’s on the Hill Church heads towards a rebirth as a microbrewery, its old congregation is celebrating a rebirth of its own.
“The church is not the building, the church is the congregation and the church remains intact and strong,” Rev. Will Ferrey told the Westerly News.
“The congregation in Ucluelet is absolutely thriving. It’s full of people who are really passionate and really excited about being in church and being together and learning about God and talking about God together on a Sunday.”
Ferrey was brought to the West Coast in 2013 to become the pastor of Tofino’s St. Columba Church and he quickly expanded his reach by revitalizing Ucluelet’s St. Aidan’s congregation in 2014 when he began holding Anglican and United Sunday services at 4 p.m. in the Ucluelet Community Centre. The non-traditional service does not include hymns but encourages discussion.
While church congregations are shrinking throughout BC, Ferrey has seen growth at both St. Columba and St. Aidan’s.
“The reasons [the numbers] are going up is because St. Columba and St. Aidan’s work hard at being engaged in the community, we work hard at being a positive part of the community and we work hard at helping people to explore their spirituality in a nonjudgmental way,” he said.
He said churches and congregations must adapt to attract new faces and reconnect with old ones.
“It’s not exactly what we do in church that’s the problem, but it’s often how we do it and how we’ve done it that people don’t feel welcome or don’t feel like they’re allowed to participate. So, we just have to keep working at inviting people and saying to people, ‘You can come in,’” he said.
“We need to learn how to speak to today’s world and we need to learn how to invite people in. I’m often struck by the fact that when somebody who’s never been to church, or hasn’t been to church for a long time, comes in; they love what we do and often become a regular member.”
Ferrey’s optimistic style has been a breath of fresh air for the St. Aidan’s congregation that was struggling to find an identity after losing its church.
Pam McIntosh attended St. Aidan’s from around 1975 right up until it was deconsecrated in 2010 and told the Westerly News it was a booming scene at one time.
“We had a Sunday school of 50 kids and a huge congregation,” she said noting attendance started dwindling as attrition kicked in during the 1990’s. “The early 2000’s was when it really dwindled.”
She said the church was kept alive by a trust fund set up by Ucluelet’s Matterson family.
“When Mrs. Matterson died, she left a very generous endowment to the church and that’s what kept us going, but as soon as that was eaten up it was no longer viable,” she said. “We probably realized around 2005 that, unless something drastic happened, we were not going to be able to continue.”
The congregation tried to keep its house intact and even opened up a thrift store in the basement in an effort to raise funds.
““It was a thriving thrift store,” McIntosh said. “The Corner Cupboard it was called and we ran that as an attempt to raise funds to try and save the church but, by the end, there were too few of us and it just wasn’t viable.”
She said it was around 2007 that the Anglican Diocese began talking about shutting the church down.
“We couldn’t support it financially and once we couldn’t support it financially that’s when the diocese stepped in,” she said adding St. Aidan’s closing in 2010 “rankled” the community that had built it.
“It becomes diocese property when you create a church, even though your community paid for it, built it, and put their backs into it and then when they sell it, the money goes out of the community.”
She said the congregation scattered after the church was deconsecrated with some joining the nearby Christ Community Church and others traveling to Trinity Church in Port Alberni or St. Columba in Tofino. Some, she said, stopped attending church altogether.
She was thrilled to see Ferrey put his tireless efforts towards reigniting the local congregation in 2014.
“Will coming was a healing process for us because, I think, we were a very broken and hurting congregation because of what had happened the last year before [the church] sold and how it was done. It didn’t take into account anybody that was in the congregation; it was just done,” she said.
“Once Will came, all was good. That was a Godsend for us…He’s brought a vibrancy that hasn’t been here for a while; a sense that we could still be in existence down here and that we are still a church however small we may be.”
She added Ferrey’s unconventional methods have engaged and expanded the congregation.
“He’s good at bringing to the community a different way of doing church and that’s quite refreshing,” she said. “We needed that. We were disillusioned and broken and downhearted and Will came along and he’s upbeat. He was able to say, ‘We don’t need that building, we can do church differently; the church is not a building.’”
She said it took some time to get used to attending church at the community hall but the depth of Sunday’s discussions eased the transition.
“It was a bit odd at first because it’s different. We don’t have music, we don’t have the trappings, we don’t have the stained glass windows and all that, but it’s refreshing because it makes me focus on what this is all about, not necessarily the building,” she said.
“We have really good discussions on a Sunday. This is church done differently, I’d never been in a situation where you can discuss the homily after he’s given it and that’s wonderful. It puts a lot more meaning into what you’re hearing.”
She said being able to attend church in her community is greatly important to her.
“I treasure it,” she said. “I feel like it connects me to something beyond me…To be able to sit there and hear the words, it’s like a meditation. It’s very healing for me. I would not want to do without it.”