The rich history of Ebenezer United
West-end church closing its ministry after six decades of community service
“Peace be to this house and all that worship in it. Peace be to those that enter and to those that go from it.” (Rev. D.B. Johnson, November 1965, at dedication of new building for Ebenezer United Church)
After 60 years as a congregation in the west end of Edmonton, 57 of those years as part of the United Church of Canada, Ebenezer United Church is closing its ministry, with a final service on Sunday at 11 a.m. led by Rev. Jo-Anne Kobylka.
The Ebenezer congregation is small with few young members and, like many main-line churches with declining numbers, can no longer afford to support the building and pay a minister.
The church has a rich and storied history to celebrate before its remaining members move on.
Following the Second World War, conditions in Europe led many to leave, resulting in a wave of immigration to Canada. In the early 1950s, many Dutch immigrants had settled in the town of Jasper Place (amalgamated with Edmonton in 1960).
In 1955, a congregation of the Reformed Church was officially formed with services held in Westmount Presbyterian Church. The minister, Rev. W. H. Vandermeer, had come to North America in 1922 and had worked in the U.S. and Eastern Canada before moving to Edmonton in 1952. In 1958, Vandermeer was accepted as a minister in the United Church and the congregation agreed to become part of that denomination. The name chosen was Ebenezer United Church, the Hebrew origin of Ebenezer meaning “stone of help.”
Worship services for the newly United congregation moved to Jasper Place Public School and Sunday School classes were held in other schools and homes, until a new building was completed in 1959. A manse was completed one year later. In addition to church women’s and youth groups, the building was home to Cubs and Scouts for boys and Explorers and CGIT (Canadian Girls in Training) for girls.
The 1960s were a period of church growth and the building was soon too small. November of 1965 saw the official dedication of a new church building. The original structure was rented out to serve as a kindergarten in the community and later became a Christian education wing.
Community involvement and service have always been hallmarks of the Ebenezer congregation. Over the years, many groups have met in the church building, including youth groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous and AlAnon. Church members have supported a variety of citywide community projects and causes, including Bissell Centre, YESS, E4C Lunch Program, inner-city pastoral ministry and many more, including a two-year involvement with Families Living Well, a program offering support to single parents.
Over the years, other faith groups have also found a home at Ebenezer, including the Maranatha Fellowhip (1975-1983) and, in a return to its roots, the First Dutch Reformed Church (1980-1986). Fortunately, even though the United Church congregation is departing, the building itself will continue as a sacred space. It has been purchased by the Saint Virgin Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
The church has had many ministers over the years, but some had deep roots in the congregation. Gwen Symington served as the first Sunday School superintendent. She graduated in theology from St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton and was ordained in 1959, at a time when many still considered female ministers unacceptable. She served as minister to Ebenezer from 1972 to 1976. Gerry de Vries was a founding member of Ebenezer and later studied theology at St. Andrew’s Theological College in Saskatoon and at St. Stephen’s College. After work in other churches, he returned to Ebenezer in 1985. Congregational member Margaret Shupe was commissioned as a missionary to Japan in 1980 and taught there for three years. She shared her experiences with many groups when she returned and also led worship services at Central Park Lodge.
As with all congregations, the work of the church over the years has had a strong social component, with bake sales, bazaars, rummage sales, concerts and, of course, the sharing of food, particularly the chicken suppers sponsored by the UCW (United Church Women.) As the few remaining members find a new church home (nearby St. Andrew’s United has extended a warm welcome), there will be new friends to be made and new projects in which to participate. Still, there will be a strong sense of loss as the work that has carried on for 60 years comes to a close. Yet there is reason to celebrate the many years and the many contributions that Ebenezer United Church has made to the city. Peace be to those that go from it.