St. Paul’s United Church in downtown Grande Prairie has been a staple of the community since its founding in 1911, changing hands and growing with the city.
Gord Waldie, the current minister of the sanctuary, explains how one of the cities founders, Alexander Forbes, “came to what’s now the corner [where the church stands], saw the blocks looking over the Creek and planted a poster saying, ‘Here’s where we’re going to build the Presbyterian church.’”
As the city grew, the church became a local hotspot; jokingly deemed “the cathedral church of Grande Prairie” by old members of the congregation for its centrality in both the community and the city. This popularity gave way to a new, more elegant building constructed between 1956-57.
Around that same time “it was still a church of power brokers,” said Waldie, “where people who were very connected with municipal government and other sorts of the power within the city congregated.”
The close connection to government faded over time but the sense of community that was fostered because of those ties remained and became crucial to the church’s identity. As such, when Waldie took charge of the fellowship around 2010, they were already firm believers in the power of community.
Now, because of the pandemic, they have felt their sense of community starting to crumble. But there have been some promising signs of people trying to stay engaged with the community especially since the church has started looking into alternative means of hosting their congregation.
Lifetime of services
Waldie has now been in charge of the church for just over 10 years, originally coming from another United Church in Atikokan, Ont.
This rural church, which he led for nine years after graduating from his seminary at Saint Andrew’s college, sits about two hours west of Thunder Bay
Under Waldie’s leadership, the church has made inclusivity a top priority, starting a number of community engagement programs.
These programs include a group whose focus is to make the church an “affirming congregation within the [region’s] LGBTQ+ issues” and a referral-based food donation program.
The LGBTQ+ affirmation group has been working with the Grande Prairie Pride Society to help orchestrate the city’s Pride Week celebration.
This all came to a halt when the pandemic hit.
On March 15, Waldie had just returned from Edmonton when he saw on Twitter that Alberta schools had closed. At that point the reverend became extremely focused on managing the crisis.
“I had just gotten back, [but then] I just came over to the church and started sending emails that said, ‘Hey, we’re having a council meeting tomorrow,’” said Waldie.
“I got into this mode where I was just like A-B-C-D have to happen, how do we do it?”
By the next day, the United Church council had made their decision to shut the church’s doors so they could focus on keeping themselves and the congregation safe from the deadly virus.
“Nobody really questioned it, it was like council met and said, ‘Okay, obviously we have to do this’” said Waldie, adding that the closure of schools bolstered that argument. “It wasn’t even an option.”
Feeling the effects of the pandemic
What ended up being a little more complicated was the church’s associated community groups also having to close. When this happened, it took a number of weeks before all the members of the various groups were taught how to use Zoom so they could begin hosting meetings again.
One of the most surprising trends Waldie and the church noticed during this time was a significant drop in their referral-based food donation program.
“The program really slowed down as soon as everything else shut down, we think it’s partly just because the agencies [that make the referrals] were also closed, their office hours were reduced more and many were working from home.”
This lull came as a shock to everyone involved, since many were expecting the referrals to pick up as the pandemic wore on and cupboards started to go bare.
In that period before the human connection was restored, Waldie felt his congregation’s sense of community at its lowest point.
“Some of my colleagues described it as a loneliness. That wasn’t really what it was to me, it was just that something was missing.”
“One of the things faith communities have to add is the reminder that we’re all in this together, that reminder of community rather than the individual and the reminder that we’re actually better off if we do what uplifts the whole,” said Waldie. “We’re better off if we do what supports everybody rather than everybody trying to get ahead.”
That meant re-opening after Labour Day. One of the most challenging parts of doing so was acquiring wall-mounted hand sanitizer units. According to Waldie, “those are apparently really popular right now and almost impossible to get.”
Hopeful for the future
Even with these precautions “not everybody comes back right away, and some people may never come back” said Waldie.
At the moment, Waldie and his daughter are using his webcam to record and edit the services so they can be posted to YouTube on Sundays. But soon they hope to have the tech set up to start streaming – their biggest undertaking right now.
“One of the things that I’m coming to realize is for some people, the nature of our wired world causes that [community] connection and may be what brings them to say, ‘I should pop in there someday.’”
As Waldie is pushing for more online options, he also recognizes that, “for a number of people, nothing is going to replace that ability to see a friend and pick them up.”
The combination of the modified in-person services and online options is slowly bringing the community back together. Between the two, Waldie feels that most people are having their expectations for services and community met.
With Christmas on its way and a potential second wave on many people’s minds, Waldie and the church are more prepared than ever as they have learned from their mistakes.
According to Waldie, the biggest change they will implement is making sure to consult their community before fully shutting down again.
A previous version of this story included incorrect information about the fate of the old church building. We regret the error.