In the early afternoon of Christmas Eve, 2016, Chad Geis, chair of the pastoral council at the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Qu’Appelle, Sask., arrived at the church he had known since his childhood to get things ready for the Christmas morning mass.
From the moment he stepped in, it was clear something was amiss. It was oddly cold inside. The thermometer read -5° C. Christmas services ended up being cancelled at the church while Geis tried to find out what was wrong with the boiler.
Two and a half blocks away, at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, there were no Christmas services planned either. Its congregation of eight to 10 active members receives sacramental ministry once a month from a retired priest who also ministers to other churches, and they wanted to offer the priest the option of putting on a service at a larger church with more children, says warden Jean Kurbis. So Kurbis and some other parishioners had made plans to attend the Christmas service at the Roman Catholic church instead. When they arrived on Christmas Day, they were surprised to see a sign bearing the words “Closed until further notice” on the door.
Over the next few days, Geis was able to find someone to fix the church’s boiler, but when it came back on, it became clear that water had frozen in the lines supplying the church’s radiators, bursting them.
“It was like a sprinkler everywhere, water coming out of everything,” Geis says.
The Immaculate Conception parishioners were now faced with the problem of what to do with their church. Water damage from the burst pipes was just one of a number of problems now confronting the 110-year-old building. There were already problems with the walls, and the leaking roof had started to cause plaster on the ceiling to break off, threatening to fall down. By late January, the congregation decided they would not be able to raise the estimated $250,000 needed to repair the building, Geis says.
Kurbis and her congregation soon learned what had happened at the Roman Catholic church, and it wasn’t long before they invited them to worship at St. Peter’s. About a month after Geis’s discovery, members of the Immaculate Conception were celebrating mass at the Anglican church.
And thus began an arrangement that, at a meeting of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Regina this November, would be held up as a case study in co-operation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics in southern Saskatchewan.
Members of both congregations met again in April to discuss the possibility of the Roman Catholics continuing to worship at St. Peter’s on a more permanent basis. The Immaculate Conception congregation offered to pay for continuing to use the church, but the congregation at St. Peter’s declined, proposing that they put off dealing with financial arrangements until this January, Kurbis says.
The Roman Catholic congregation eventually asked for and received permission from Donald Bolen, archbishop of the archdiocese, to close their church. On October 12, at an event attended by diocesan and archdiocesan clergy from both denominations, and members of both congregations, one last mass was held at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Bolen officially decommissioned the church and removed its altar stone. The assembled worshippers then walked to St. Peter’s for a short service, followed by a reception.
Saying goodbye to the Immaculate Conception—which is now in the process of being sold—was hard for a lot of parishioners, Geis says, many of whom are elderly and had worshipped there their whole lives. But both Kurbis and Geis, as well as the two Anglican and Roman Catholic priests who serve the congregations, say the church-sharing arrangement has worked out very well. The congregations simply adapt to one other’s often-shifting schedules—Sunday, for example, might feature a Roman Catholic mass at 9 a.m. and an Anglican service at 10:30.
“Everyone is settled into the fact that this is our new home,” Geis says.
For Anglicans and Roman Catholics to share worship space is very much in the spirit of a covenant signed in 2011 between the Anglican diocese of Qu’Appelle and the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Regina, says the Rev. Cheryl Johnson, the retired priest who gives monthly Anglican services at St. Peter’s. The covenant commits the diocese and archdiocese, which cover similar territory across southern Saskatchewan, to co-operating in a number of ways, including holding a yearly joint prayer service; and encourages other activities, including common Lent and Advent services.
The sharing of worship space at St. Peter’s is just one example of increasing co-operation between the two denominations in southern Saskatchewan, Johnson says, thanks partly to the covenant and partly to a trend now current in many small rural communities for Christians to feel less divided by the denominations that they fall into.
The Anglican congregation at St. Peter’s itself has an ecumenical element in that one regular attendant is Lutheran, Johnson says.
The full communion agreement between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada allows members of each church to share the Eucharist together.
Built in 1885, St. Peter’s was the cathedral for the diocese of Qu’Appelle until 1944, when the bishop’s seat was moved to St. Paul’s Cathedral in Regina.