The bell tolls for Chalmers Presbyterian

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After 141 years, Chalmers Presbyterian church in Winterbourne will be closing its doors for the final time with a special service tomorrow (Sunday) night.

“The service of closing a church is rather like a funeral,” said Rev. Mary Whitson, who has spent the past three years at Chalmers and during that time has presided over one wedding and three baptisms.

“It’s a sad thing for those who are left, and at the same time it is a celebration of those who have gone before and have maintained it this long.”

AT THE END Chalmers Presbyterian Church in Winterbourne will be closing following a special service tomorrow (Sunday) evening.

Built in 1870, church members have finally arrived at one undeniable fact: people no longer seem interested in attending church anymore.

“One reason – a lack of members,” said church elder Willie Clemens when asked why the church decided to close its doors for good.

Clemens, 76, has been going to the church since his family moved from Stratford when he was just 7 years old. He said the church has gone from a peak of nearly 100 members and three Sunday school classes during the 1940s and 1950s, to just 11 weekly attendees now.

He says it’s just a sign of the times.

“There are two subdivisions in Winterbourne and numerous people could come, but they don’t.”

The church actually closed back in June for its annual summer break, and come September the decision was made not to re-open given the fact that the average age of the congregation is somewhere between 75 and 85, Clemens said.

The fate of Chalmers is not unique and is being played out time and time again throughout Canada’s rural churches.

In 1945, a Gallup poll estimated that 60 per cent of Canadians attended a weekly church service, and some surveys placed that figure even higher during the 1950s, with weekly attendance approaching 70 per cent.

Yet in recent decades that number has begun to spiral downward. Weekly attendance dropped to just over 30 per cent in 1975, and fell to around 20 per cent by the year 2000.

A widely-held belief is that this percentage will continue to drop as Canada becomes an increasingly secular nation, with attendance rates expected to reach the levels of Western Europe where weekly church attendance has dropped to below 10 per cent in most countries.

The fate of the building itself is still up in the fair. Following the deconsecrating service on Sunday, it will fall into the hands of the board of trustees for the Presbyterian Church of Canada – it will be their decision on what to do with the building and the property.

Whitson said the land will likely be appraised and then sold, but she isn’t sure what will happen to the church, which has fallen into a state of disrepair and doesn’t even have running water.

“The floor is full of dry rot. I don’t think you’d let an engineer anywhere near it or it would be condemned in a hurry,” she said, adding that the congregation has asked that some of the historical items such as the war memorial be stored at the Elmira Legion, and that the church archives and records be stored at the Presbyterian Church museum in Toronto.

The church has also not been designated as a heritage structure by the province, though Clemens said that the government tried to a few years ago and that the congregation fought it at the time in order to retain control over the structure.

He said that they would likely welcome that designation now if it meant saving the church.

“That would be nice, rather than having it torn down,” he said.

The remaining clergy will likely splinter and move to other churches, which will be difficult for Whitson to watch given her time there.

“They are a wonderful group of people. Small, but very, very faithful, and I have certainly enjoyed the time that I have had to serve with them. It breaks my heart to see it go and for those 11 people to carry on will be difficult.”

For Clemens, the real difficulty will be no longer attending services at the big, yellow brick church like he has for nearly 70 years.

“It’s sad to have to say that this is the final service. I have to be honest and say that. It will probably bother me more on Sunday evening. It’s starting to make me a little choked up right now thinking that this is the final day.”

The final service at Chalmers Presbyterian Church will be tomorrow (Sunday) evening at 7 p.m. at the intersection of Kathleen Street and Peel Street in Winterbourne.

James Jackson
New father. Award-winning reporter, photographer & feature news writer at Waterloo Chronicle in Waterloo, Ontario. 2013 OCNA Reporter of the Year. Former reporter/photographer for The Observer.