Under a magnificent blue sky in March, Bishop Mark MacDonald and I traveled over ice roads from Muskrat Dam in northern Ontario to Magiss Lake. There we were to meet Jacob Sawanas and the congregation of St. Thomas Church. (See related story)
Upon arrival, we had to wait as a path was cleared to Jacob’s property. Given the amount of snow the plow itself got stuck at one point! We then boarded a toboggan kind of rig to be hauled by snowmobile the rest of the way. Jacob, known as “Jake,” built the church and is its custodian, organist, and licensed lay reader for the congregation – about seven or eight.
In every respect, the church is a labour of love – for God, his ancestors, and generations not yet born. The sanctuary is complete with altar, lectern, pulpit and prayer desk, all as I recall painted white. In the main body of the building there are benches for the congregation and the chorister whose choir robe hangs on the wall above.
On the wall behind the altar is a large wooden cross. On either side several hunks of cardboard on which Jake has written in syllabics the texts for the ascriptions of glory and praise to Jesus Christ at the reading of the Holy Gospel: and the opening sentence of the Aaronic blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you.” He also has the text for a much-loved hymn for personal renewal: “Spirit of the living God/fall afresh on me!” Jake sings this hymn as he daily reads the Scriptures and prays.
In this wonderful sacred space warmed by a wood burning stove in its midst, several men and women from the community gathered. Jake put on his lay reader’s robe and medallion but requested that on this occasion Bishop Mark and I lead evening prayer. He had chosen the hymns and said he would lead the singing. Each of us was asked to give a short reflection on the readings, which focussed on trust in the Lord’s loving kindness. Prayers were offered for the church and the world, for all who suffer and those who care for them, and for ourselves that our lives be good and holy.
Jake came forward asking for prayers for him and his wife, Harriet. Only later did I learn that it was 19 years to the very day that one of her twin daughters had taken her life. Little do we know what pain people bear when they come seeking prayers for comfort and strength.
After the vestry book had been duly signed, I noticed a couple of old and tattered Anglican Church of Canada flags hanging over the rafters. Jake smiled and pointed out that last summer he had put up a new flagpole. I looked out the door and sure enough there at the top was a brand new flag flying against that blue sky.
We then went to Jacob’s house nearby where he and Harriet had prepared food and drink for us all – my first time to eat beaver! Moose heart was also available – maybe another time …
En route back to Muskrat Dam for a feast with the community and a eucharist at St. Matthew’s Church, I thought about Jake – his holiness and his humility, his love and his loyalty. My thoughts turned to prayer that the church may never be destitute of people so devout as this faithful servant of Christ. Meeting Jake was a blessing.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.