A final service for Emmanuel United
A historical landmark in Sebringville, Emmanuel United Church has been sold to a private buyer
After nearly 150 years calling Sebringville residents to worship and marking important events in the community, the bell at Emmanuel United Church will toll for the last time on Christmas Eve.
With only a dozen active members of the congregation, and after nearly a decade of attempts to save the local landmark, the church board and trustees made the difficult decision to sell their spiritual sanctuary, once home to Perth County’s first Sunday school, to a private buyer.
“Probably for the last five years, you’ve got a group of people who are on the official board, and we basically, every couple years, just switch positions,” said Lyle Zurbrigg, trustee and chair of the board. “There was no new people to come on the board, and it got to the point where we’re tired.”
Though the full list of congregational members is about 100 strong, most don’t attend on a weekly basis or have moved to other United churches in Stratford and the surrounding area. In its heyday, around the time the congregation – once part of the Evangelical United Brethren Church – officially joined the United Church of Canada in 1968, every pew was regularly filled for Sunday services and community gatherings.
Now that the building, built in 1869 with an addition constructed in 1955, has officially been sold, those members that remain have the difficult task of finding a new United Church congregation to join.
“It’s probably the second-last public institution in Sebringville to remain, other than the post office,” said Rev. Dr. Scott Boughner, minister at Emmanuel United. “Once the school goes and the churches go, there’s not much left.”
And Emmanuel United isn’t the only congregation in southwestern Ontario forced to close its doors in recent years. According to the United Church of Canada, about seven churches a year have closed since the beginning of 2016 – roughly three to four per cent of those in the region.
“The majority are in small rural centres where the church might have been the last remaining community symbol – like the school has gone, the hospital has consolidated ... municipal governments have regionalized. Long after many other things have regionalized, the church remained very localized,” said Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer Sampa, executive secretary of the United Church of Canada’s London Conference.
But faced with rural depopulation, a shifting culture in which regular Sunday worship isn’t as much of a priority as it once was, and the subsequent issue of too many churches and not enough members, Stadelbauer- Sampa said consolidation of local congregations in larger centres like Stratford was – and is – inevitable.
However, because the United Church of Canada encourages congregation al autonomy, allowing each church community the authority to act independently, Stadelbauer Sampa said the church’s central leadership does not involve itself with the consolidation of two or more congregations.
Instead, it’s up to individual members to decide where they want to worship once their church closes.
“That for me is the heartache,” she said. “In the United Church, we are so closely aligned to our home congregation that sometimes when they close people struggle to find a new church home. … If you are Roman Catholic, whether you attend mass in this church or that church, the service looks very much the same. The United Church people would not have that experience. That makes it harder because it feels strange to them.
“For me, this is the piece where I think we could do better in terms of helping people find a new church home.”
While the shuttering of rural churches in southwestern Ontario may sound like a tough pill to swallow, those at Emmanuel United are concluding nearly 180 years of history on a high note, with a Christmas Eve community service starting at 7 p.m. on Dec. 24, and the release of a photo book depicting the church as it stands today.
At $17.50 each, the Emmanuel United Church photo book can be ordered by calling church board and trustee secretary Joanne Ehgoetz at 519-393-6772.
And although the church board and trustees tried their hardest to sell the building to another congregation, and were remarkably close to doing so, the offer they eventually accepted has left them with hope the building located on Sebringville’s main thoroughfare will remain standing for years to come.
Additionally, much of the furniture and equipment in the church is being donated to local United Church congregations and charitable organizations. The church’s organ, for example, will find a new home at Parkview United Church in Stratford. gsim[email protected]media.com
Trustees and members of the official board at Emmanuel United Church in Sebringville are preparing for a final Christmas Eve service before they sell the building to a private buyer in the new year.
A historical landmark in Sebringville, Emmanuel United Church has been sold to a private buyer and the congregation will fold after one last Christmas Eve service.