Worshipping summer style, in God’s country

Published September 1, 2004

Archbishop Andrew and Lois Hutchison are frequent visitors to St. Peter’s-on-the-Rock, Stony Lake, Ont.

Stony Lake , Ont.

It is 10:15 a.m. and the entrance to the channels of Hell’s Gate and Devil’s Elbow at Stony Lake is crowded with canoes full of people paddling their way to a small, white wooden church called St. Peter’s-on-the-Rock.

They are warmly greeted with handshakes at the church entrance by warden Alan Wotherspoon, assistant warden Barbara Rimmer, and Rev. Kim Beard, incumbent at Christ Church in Brampton , Ont, and priest-in-charge for August.

By 10:30 a.m. the cosy church, whose window shutters provide a stunning view of the lake, is packed with worshippers. Many are in shorts and casual cottage clothes, some barefoot and suntanned, including about 30 tots mostly still wearing life vests.

The opening hymn is an ode to the beauty of God’s creation and the “magic spell” of Stony Lake , “where silence is endless” and “moonlight shines like silver.”

The gospel is alive and well in summer at Stony Lake , one of the Kawartha Lakes north and east of Peterborough , in east central Ontario . From early July when cottagers begin flocking for the yearly ritual of canoeing, swimming, fishing and barbeque, the church doors of St. Peter’s open wide, closing only when the chill sets in and the last revelers are gone by Labour Day in early September. (Brave souls also come and adorn the pinewood church with flowers, corn and fall leaves for Thanksgiving when — according to Mr. Wotherspoon — the weather “can either be horrible or spectacular.”)

The hazy, lazy days of summer provide no excuse for people to forget about church. The annual ritual of opening the doors of summer churches from June to September is replicated across Canada where the church has followed its wandering flock — on the beach, by the lake, nature parks and trails.

The choices for summer worship are as endless as a cottage country horizon. In the former diocese of Cariboo St. Saviour’s church is at a national historic park in Barkerville, B.C. At St. Joseph ‘s Island on the north shore of Georgian Bay near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Canadian Anglicans worship alongside American Episcopalians and other denominations at the Chapel of the Intercession at Llewellyn Beach , a white clapboard church built in the 19th century. The diocese of Calgary maintains the oldest church at Waterton National Park called All Saints, which is frequented by many Americans who live near the United States border. In the diocese of Huron, in southern Ontario , cottagers at Turkey Point welcome student interns — most of them from the Huron School of Divinity ? as summer pastors for St. Andrew’s-by-the-Lake. At Kildare Capes , Prince Edward Island , it’s the “summer people” who have kept Christ Church alive. A profile of the church written by warden Art Travers notes: “The last local member passed away in 1995. But there is a vibrant group of summer residents of various denominations from as far away as North Carolina , Connecticut , Nova Scotia and New Brunswick that support this church and parish.”

Summer worship ministry plays a vital role in the work and life of the church.

“One of the realities is that people stop going to church from Victoria Day to Labour Day. So, it’s important,” said Jane Fletcher, student intern at St. Andrew’s-by-the-Lake.

Summer worship is “an important touchstone for ministry and faith,” said Mr. Beard. “It’s an opportunity for children with no Christian education at home to come to church.”

Mr. Wotherspoon noted that when about 40 children were asked during a recent Sunday school at St. Peter’s -on-the-Rock whether they attend church, only three raised their hands. Grandparents — not the parents — often bring the children to church here.

Most of them built around natural settings, summer churches provide more pull for many worshippers.

“For a lot of us it’s a special place,” said Mr. Wotherspoon, who has been attending service at St. Peter’s-on-the-Rock for 66 years. (The church itself was built in 1914 and has undergone renovations since.)

“The service itself is traditional but because it’s in a place such as this (by the lake) it’s much more spiritual, deep, and personal,” said Ms. Rimmer. “We are in God’s country, in a natural environment.” (Mr. Beard, in his sermon, reminded worshippers about stewardship of God’s resources and about how everything ultimately belongs to God, not humans. A recent trip to Asia, he added, reminded him that God is found not just in beautiful places like Stony Lake , but even in poverty-stricken areas like a garbage dump community in Manila where faith continues to flourish in spite of need.)

There is a great deal of history and tradition in summer churches, according to Paul Kingston, whose grandfather, George Kingston, former primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and former bishop of Algoma, used to meet bishops from the U.S. at the Church of the Intercession on St. Joseph’s Island. Archbishop Kingston’s remains are buried at the church grounds.

Another summer church that Canadians and Americans jointly support is Christ Church at Kildare Capes, P.E.I. where some 60 to 70 per cent of the financing comes from Americans. From July to September, Rev. Simon Davies leads a Sunday evening prayer service at Christ Church , a little white church near the ocean on the western end of the island, with a coffee hour afterward at a parishioner’s home. “We get newcomers all the time. Only about 30 per cent of them are Anglicans. One woman visits from Florida two weeks a year and supports us fantastically. Her husband is buried in the cemetery,” said Mr. Travers, church warden.

Visitors are sometimes surprised to see the American flag flying outside the church, along with the Canadian flag, Mr. Travers noted, but the church has a historic connection with the U.S. In October 1851, a huge storm blew up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where about 400 U.S. and Canadian schooners were fishing mackerel. The two-day tempest sank 90 ships and killed 160 men, 15 of whom, unidentified, are buried near Christ Church . In 1997, a memorial plaque was dedicated outside the church.

The “wonderful sense of community” and the casual, laid-back atmosphere draw people to summer churches, where coffee and light snacks after the service are de rigueur .

“Fellowship is a huge part of the service,” said Ms. Fletcher who was pastor at St. Andrew’s-by-the-Lake, in the diocese of Huron, for the first time this summer. “What’s unique is that people take care of each other. There’s a lot of mingling and talking on the side lawn. The old hands make sure they welcome the newcomers.” Like St. Peter’s-on-the-Rock where as many as 35 denominations have taken part in services, St. Andrew’s-by-the-Lake is ecumenical.

Maintaining the church is a community affair. Cottagers take turns bringing the flowers for the altar at St. Peter’s and help in the upkeep of the church; Ms. Rimmer’s husband, Philip, built the new lectern for the altar.

For clergy, ministering to summer churches provides time to unwind and commune with God and nature. Most summer churches provide a clergy cottage and, in the case, of St. Peter’s-on-the-Rock, a skiff and a boat. The new primate, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, once served as incumbent at St. Peter’s (1982-1984) and has gone back to the church many times since. “Here he’s Fr. Andy,” said Mr. Wotherspoon.

When he left St. Peter’s in 1984, “Fr. Andy” left a list of “overview cum instructions” for his successor, according to historian Katharine Hooke in her book on the history of St. Peter’s-on-the-Rock. Some of his reminders: “You are your own altar guild; look after the small linens,” “It’s summer and they are packed like sardines, so brevity is appreciated.”

With files from Solange De Santis


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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