TIME OF JOY
Congregation celebrates reopening Highlands United Church one year after arson fire
After a fire shuttered Highlands United Church one year ago, Rev. John Burrill just tried to keep his church family together.
“There was a feeling of loss and grief,” recalled Burrill of Sept. 14, 2018.
On Sunday, those negative feelings turned to joy as the 113-year-old church re-opened its doors to a congregation renewed in body and spirit.
Families, seniors and neighbours packed the pews and heartily sang How Great Thou Art from the sanctuary — now sparkling and refurbished after a $3-million restoration.
A new sound board, and three big screens for projecting hymns are fresh additions to the church, along with a “crying room” for babies and parents who need to retreat, but still want to enjoy the service.
“It’s not so much a church as it is a pivotal part of the community,” said church-goer Bruce Audley, 70, who was raised just four blocks from Highlands United and remembers when wooden boardwalks and a horsedrawn milk cart characterized the neighbourhood.
A hub for weddings, funerals and baptisms, the church hosts a daycare centre in its basement, and has a thriving music ministry, with choirs for both voices and handbells.
It supports the nearby Highlands Junior High School’s hot lunch program, and congregation members volunteer for Youth Employment and Support Services (YESS).
Brianne Mudryk bounced baby Remy on her hip during Sunday’s service and celebratory lunch.
She looks forward to having the nine-month-old baptized in two weeks in the freshly scrubbed sanctuary. Mudryk says “the community” is what draws her to Highlands United.
“It’s where I grew up, and went to Sunday school and the feeling when you come back through the doors ... it feels like home,” says Mudryk.
She remembers being baptized at the same church when she was in kindergarten. Afterwards, the minister gave her a high five instead of a handshake.
The fire was labelled arson, although no one was ever arrested.
While the blaze was confined to the church office, the smoke spread throughout the building, which was stripped to the studs and now features a commercial kitchen, new flooring and fresh paint throughout. Every wire within its walls was pulled out and cleaned.
During Sunday’s sermon, Burrill reminded the congregation of the philosophy that sustained them over the last year, when they gratefully borrowed worship space from Edmonton South Seventh Day Adventist church until their own building was ready again.
“Today, we stand on that same foundation,” he said. “The church is not the building. It’s the people.”
A service at Highlands United Church Sunday, which re-opened one year after a fire damaged the church.