In remembrance of Sackville’s United Church
As a parish minister, it was part of my work to visit terminally ill or elderly persons near death and to be with families following the deaths of loved ones. In my current university ministry, while I frequently provide pastoral care and grief counselling, I only occasionally deal directly with the ill and dying. This past summer, however, I spent time each week visiting with a friend nearing death. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and remained hospitalized until his death in late July. Eventually, and almost as a blessing and release, my friend succumbed to the illness which racked him with pain and kept him bedridden and slipped away with dignity and grace.
I tell this story because I felt similarly last week, as I watched the demolition of the former Sackville United Church building. Built in 1875, it served as an anchor point in town, both spiritually and architecturally. In 1898, the interior of the sanctuary was renovated, with the orientation of the sanctuary shifting from southwest to northeast and the addition of two huge balconies to accommodate the many people who attended. Stories are told of Mount Allison students walking to the church in the 1920s and 1930s, men and women walking separately and sitting in opposite balconies.
As new students arrived at Mt. A this year, the orientation logo “Welcome to the Neighbourhood” was adorned with a representative graphic of downtown Sackville, including the large white clapboard structure – complete with rose window – that was once the Sackville United Church.
Over the years, the church building saw many ministers and parishioners come and go. In 1925, it saw its denominational link shift from the Methodist Church to the then newly created United Church of Canada. It saw baptisms, weddings and funerals. The first wedding I conducted in Sackville was in the Sackville United Church. I have shared in services of baptism in that building and have conducted funerals there. A number of years ago, I stood beside my good friend – who was the minister at the time – and led the congregation in prayer after he announced his own diagnosis of terminal cancer. Months later I attended his funeral service in that building. That big white church building was a special place to me and even more so to the regular members of the congregation who worshipped there.
The building served its congregation well, and beyond that, the town. It played host to popular town hall meetings, it welcomed Girl Guides and Beavers, PFLAG and Rotary breakfasts. University students held international fairs, meals and retreats there.
But the building was old and ill and it could not be maintained without heroic efforts which were out of reach of the congregation and the town. We give thanks for its life and work, we celebrate its accomplishments, we mourn its passing, and we let it go. First its deterioration and disuse, and more recently, its demolition, are right to mourn. But as we mourn, we also recognize the passage of time and the toll it took on an aging, elderly building—and we watched it pass away.
Church, essentially, is about people, not structure. It is important, with the passing of the former Sackville United Church building, to note that the church is the community of people – that church is still alive. So let this serve as my eulogy, if not an elegy, for the building that has passed. May these words also be my celebration of the church congregation which continues in its worship, mission and ministry, even though the morning light no longer shines through stained glass.
Rev. John C. Perkin is the chaplain of Mount Allison University.