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.

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