Local people rally to support parish art displays
The Church of St. John the Evangelist in Elora, Ont. was not the first Anglican parish to organize a “poppy project,” encouraging people to knit or crochet poppies for an art installation around Remembrance Day.
Canon Paul Walker, incumbent at St. John’s, and knitting club coordinator Barb Dunsmore drew inspiration from the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer in Calgary, which had unveiled its own poppy display in 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.
Even so, when St. John’s organized its inaugural poppy project in 2021, like the Calgary cathedral it found a wave of outside volunteers eager to take part. Dunsmore was stunned by the level of support.
“It was mind-blowing, just the response that we got, and the way people did react to the knitting or crocheting [of] that simple little flower,” Dunsmore says.“
After [the poppies] were up, I would walk out in front of them, and my breath was taken away. You had to stand there and just give thanks that we were given the opportunity to do something like this to gather people together.”
The poppy display, Walker says, “became a real destination for people—folks that we never knew, who found about the installation—to come and see it in person … It became a bit of a pilgrimage site, which we didn’t quite expect.”
Similar projects have taken root in parishes across Canada in recent years—with a similar level of success, judging at least by the experiences of congregations the Journal spoke with. In all three, poppy projects began with church volunteers but quickly caught on across the wider community—and all three are planning similar projects for this Remembrance Day.
Pippa FitzGerald-Finch, a member of the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer knitting group, saw a poppy display at a church in England in 2017 and suggested the cathedral do a similar project. Her knitting group liked the idea but wondered if its half-dozen members could make enough on their own; FitzGerald-Finch estimated they would need between 2,000 to 3,000 poppies.
Ultimately more than 100 people helped make poppies, FitzGerald-Finch says, and the group ended up receiving more than 10,000 of them.
“It just took off,” she says. “A lot [were] people who had no connection with the church whatsoever, but just got enthused by the project and wanted to contribute … One day I went to my mailbox and found 100 poppies in the box. A lady up in Radium [B.C.]… I have no idea how she heard about it, but she had made the poppies and sent them. It was amazing. It really seemed to catch people’s imagination.”
The group contacted the Royal Canadian Legion, which owns the poppy as a trademark, to get permission. The legion was happy as long as the church didn’t sell the poppies, but only used them for an art display.
St. John’s Elora encountered similar fervour with its own poppy project. The parish’s knitting and quilting group has no more than 25 members, Dunsmore says, yet last year more than 100 people knitted and crocheted poppies.
Social media helped spread the word, Walker says. St. John’s initially invited people to contribute 1,500 poppies but collected more than 7,000. Among those who created poppies were students and staff at St. John’s-Kilmarnock School in Breslau, which has a historic link to the parish. Volunteers ranged from “young people to middle-aged people to folks in nursing homes,” Walker says.
The pandemic may have played a role in sparking people’s interest, he says. “I think the COVID element meant that people felt some connection to one another through some creative expression that also connected them to previous generations, as we remember people who gave their lives in war efforts.”
St. John’s also received permission from the Royal Canadian Legion under the condition that the poppies not be for sale. Instead, St. John’s set up a box for donations to the legion.
The desire to connect people during the pandemic inspired a different kind of poppy display at St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church in Oak Bay, B.C. Starting in 2020, St. Mary’s began a community poppy project centred in the church’s memorial garden. People were invited to spend time in personal reflection and prayer and place a red or black stone in the centre of the courtyard, helping create the image of a large poppy. Canon Craig Hiebert, incumbent of St. Mary’s, drew inspiration from a Church of England parish which had organized a similar project.
At the time, Hiebert says, local authorities had just announced that Remembrance Day ceremonies were going to be either effectively cancelled or have their in-person attendance severely restricted. “It was really just a [question of,] ‘How do we help support our community at this time when we’re used to gathering?’”
Many in the community took part in the project, Hiebert says, and it has now become an annual tradition for the parish, which has also expanded its period of remembrance to include Dedication Sunday and All Saints’ Day.
Hiebert describes the poppy project as “a healthy reminder to the parish itself that life is not just about the things that we do within the doors of the church. We are part of the wider community and our mission, and vision, is to be part of what God is already doing in the whole community. We want to offer these opportunities to partner with our neighbours in seeking health and healing and wholeness.”
The Poppies for Peace Campaign at Church of the Incarnation in Oakville, Ont., began after parishioner Pearl Moffat visited St. John’s. She and fellow parishioner Leslie Hickey began planning a similar poppy display for this year, drawing on advice and knitting and crocheting patterns from St. John’s.
In March, they asked the parish to contribute 5,000 poppies. As of Sept. 9, they had collected 4,000. Some volunteers had never knitted or crocheted before, but learned specifically in order to participate, Moffat says.
“We have one woman in our parish who has made over 1,000 just [by] herself,” Hickey says. “She’s kept us busy running yarn over to her, because she just keeps running out.”
“I think the poppy just elicits an emotional response from everyone,” Moffat adds. “I have a neighbour here who has knit some for me … She kept one because her son is in the military and he’s going to be deployed this month, so she’s sending him with one in his luggage.”
As this story was being prepared in late September, the Church of the Incarnation was planning to host an open house on Remembrance Sunday where people could see the poppies, hear the choir, enjoy refreshments, and learn about parish initiatives like the work of its eco-justice committee.
Calling the campaign Poppies for Peace, Hickey says, meant “we could connect our church to how [Canada] came to be such a peaceful country, and to how we can be free to celebrate our religion and to just live comfortably and peacefully … It was a way of reaching out and saying thank you to the people that made that possible.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began just as the Church of the Incarnation started organizing the campaign, Moffat says—so it seemed appropriate to highlight, as she puts it, “remembrance, and the wish that we have a lot fewer conflicts and losses to remember in the future.”