Church built by pennies pays off loans

By on March 1, 2000

Bishop Tony Burton and his Roman Catholic counterpart, Bishop Blaise Morand, consecrate St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s.

The creation of a new church in the tiny community of Birch Hills, Sask., is a remarkable story in several ways.

It’s remarkable that the $430,000 church got built at all by a community of fewer than 1,000 people, remarkable that all loans have been paid off, that much of the money was raised by people saving pennies, and that it was an interfaith venture.

The church is called St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s because it serves both a Roman Catholic (St. Anne’s) and an Anglican (St. Mary’s) congregation. The two groups began dreaming of a new church after they had outgrown the old building, which initially served Anglicans only. The Roman Catholics in Birch Hills used to drive 25 minutes to reach a church until the Anglicans welcomed them to share their space.

“In a small community, these people get together,” said Rev. Wayne Sturgess of St. Mary’s. “The kids play hockey together, they go to funerals together. Coming together as a church was never a problem.”

Half the year the Anglicans worship at 9 and the Catholics at 11; then it reverses.

The new church opened in 1997 and the last of the loans were paid off in the fall of 1999. The fund-raising campaign captured the imagination of locals, Canadians from coast to coast and people from around the world. Since many people save pennies anyway, church officials hit on the idea of asking people to turn in their pennies to build a new church.

Weekly services for both congregations used to begin with the Penny Song. Parishioners would collect and save their pennies all week and during the Penny Song, the young people would collect them as an offering towards the building fund. Parishioners Dora (who is also treasurer for the two congregations) and Bud Austin counted and rolled them each week.

The church asked Anglicans and Roman Catholics from across Canada to save pennies, cash them in and send a cheque for the balance.

When the campaign was discussed on CBC Radio’s As it Happens, donations began rolling in from the United States, England and elsewhere, Fr. Sturgess said.

In some cases, people sent their pennies through the mail. Children would toss donations in an envelope, the sums of which occasionally didn’t even meet the cost of postage.

Fr. Sturgess remembers one woman whose son was saving pennies until he died in an accident. She sent the money to the church’s campaign.

“We want to thank all those who helped us prayerfully and financially,” he said.

The penny campaign went on for about six years, with nary a complaint from the local credit union over handling the thousands of coins. That’s one benefit of living in a small community, Fr. Sturgess said – credit union staff attend the church and fully supported the campaign.

The co-operation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics ought to be an example for others, the priest believes. The two communities now share services periodically. And St. Anne’s helped St. Mary’s pay back its $50,000 loan to the Anglican Foundation. St. Anne’s had also received a $50,000 loan. When it was forgiven after a few payments, it turned over about $10,000 to St. Mary’s to help it pay its loan.

“Both churches are in dialogue,” Fr. Sturgess said of talks between the Anglicans and Catholics. “From the grassroots, we are doing it. Maybe it’s about time the ones higher up get on board too.”

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