Flurries of activity in Labrador churches

Published April 1, 2005

The face of ministry across Labrador is eclectic, like Rev. Graham Hill (second from left), an energetic British priest; Ben Garren, a 23-year-old catechist from North Carolina who looks after seven churches along the southern coast; and Jennifer Gosse, the first woman archdeacon in the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. Churches in Labrador, says Bishop Cyrus Pitman, (far left) are in a time of great transition. The problem is not a clergy shortage but, rather, "finding the resources."

Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Nfld.

When the six Anglican parishes in Labrador gather for their annual strategy conference in February, they can never be sure who will turn up. This year, the parish of Rigolet, close to the Atlantic coast, had to fax in its report since a blizzard kept its delegates firmly grounded. And the group from Churchill Falls was late since their car ran off a particularly icy stretch of the Labrador Highway and had to be towed out of a ditch.

But about 20 representatives of the 5,500 Anglicans in Labrador met Feb. 16-19 here to share strategies for ministry in a wild and beautiful place that can dash the best-laid plans.

Among initiatives discussed were reviving the position of youth co-ordinator at the diocesan office in St. John’s, Nfld., establishing a training program for lay readers in conjunction with Queen’s College in St. John’s and re-drawing parish boundaries along the Atlantic coast.

“We are in a great transition time,” Bishop Cyrus Pitman told the group, which met at St. Andrew’s church. He noted that he became the diocesan bishop just last December and that work performed by the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador on behalf of the three Newfoundland dioceses is now being taken on by the diocese of Central Newfoundland, necessitating some staff reduction in St. John’s. The diocese is also looking to fill Bishop Pitman’s former job of executive assistant to the bishop.

“It’s a time of refocusing and regrouping,” he noted.

Parish representatives, in their reports, reflected a wide variety of situations. In Churchill Falls, a giant hydroelectric plant means there is “100 per cent employment” in town, said layperson Michele Holmes. But the church has not been able to support a full-time priest since 2003 and shares ministry with the United church, she said. Many who work in Churchill Falls perceive it as a “transient spot” and still support their churches “back home,” she said.

Further west, on the Quebec border, Labrador City is the location of three large iron ore mines. With about 650 Anglican families, the parish not only supports a full-time priest, it sends funds to other Labrador parishes. Its challenge, however, said Rev. Roger Whalen, is that although people come to work in the mines and may live there for 30 years, they retire “back home.” Unlike many churches, he said, Labrador City can’t depend upon older people for steady leadership and must adjust to a constantly changing mix of older and younger, he said.

On the coast, the community of Rigolet has not had a full-time rector since 2002. Although the parish report, written by layperson Sandra Flowers, often mentions the congregation’s desire to have a full-time priest, it also acknowledges that the church has “many debts” and “maybe (needs) to look elsewhere for financial support.”

In Cartwright, further south along the coast, energetic British priest Graham Hill noted that at one of his churches, on an island community called Black Tickle, there are 12 Anglicans. At another of his three churches, Paradise River, the roof has fallen in and no one seems to want to have it repaired. However, the third point, Cartwright, has a very lively youth program, membership is growing and a stewardship program has begun.

The roughest physical layout may lie in the parish of Battle Harbour, where 23-year-old catechist Ben Garren, on a one-year leave from his home state of North Carolina, looks after seven churches strung along the southern coast. His churches are coping with the decline of the cod fishery and with something new – a road built just five years ago. Before the coastal road, communities were accessible only by boat, plane or snowmobile.

The road has been a good news-bad news situation, he said. Before the road, the priest would arrive and “remain within the community for several days,” although the arrival was always chancy due to weather, he said. Now, with most points within driving distance, the priest’s presence is lessened, although he or she can reach more congregations on a Sunday. Although Mr. Garren can lead worship, as a layperson he cannot administer the sacraments, so clergy from neighbouring parishes pitch in.

The parish’s report recommended training more laypersons to lead services, but Mr. Garren noted that “some people will have nothing to do with a lay reader.”

The two Happy Valley-Goose Bay churches are in a community that depends upon the nearby air base for economic support. Built in World War II by American troops, 5 Wing Goose Bay now hosts British, Canadian, German and Italian air forces for training and maneuvers. It supports two priests and two unpaid deacons. The clergy are stretched thin, tending to Rigolet, Churchill Falls and Battle Harbour in addition to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, said Archdeacon Jennifer Gosse, who supervises the Labrador archdeaconry in the diocese. It is in the midst of a vigorous stewardship plan and has nearly completed a parish list, discovering a pleasant surprise – that it has about 450 Anglican families rather than the 200 originally thought, she said.

The desire for full-time clergy at all the parishes was a consistent theme throughout the meeting, but Bishop Pitman noted that he could “put two clergy in every parish we’ve got, but I’m not going to. We are not experiencing a shortage of clergy, but (the problem is) finding the resources.” Some parishes need to do more work on the issue, he said.

Rev. John Mellis, provost of Queen’s College, said the college had appropriate training programs for lay readers and Bishop Pitman said he would bring other concerns, such as the need for a youth co-ordinator, to the diocesan council in March and the group agreed on members of a core committee that would communicate more often than once per year.

“This is really who we are as a church,” said Bishop Pitman in his concluding remarks, “a lot of people in small communities in the North looking at ways to encourage ministry and think outside the box. Some of these things are critical to our mission as we try to find the most appropriate ways to do ministry in Labrador.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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