Parish a-plenty — St. Matthew’s Islington, Toronto UPDATED

To say that my recent blog concerning the future of Anglican parish ministry in Canada has attracted much interest and attention is no exaggeration. To date, almost 900 viewers have read all or part of the essay, some leaving comments and others (laity and all orders of clergy) requesting conversations.

In order to moderate my own sense of crisis, I have invited a few correspondents to describe their own parish environment. Some parishes are thriving; and I am curious to discover why and how. A key question for me concerns leadership. How is leadership offered and expressed in these holy hubs? What do external circumstances — including location, wealth, history and tradition, and community engagement – how do these enrich (in all ways) the ministry?

The response below comes from Nancy Hurn, former Archivist at the Anglican Church of Canada and an active member of St. Matthew’s, Islington in the West End of Toronto. Thanks Nancy, for your thoughts and story.

Hey Ken, your blog came to my attention recently, and I wanted to let you know about how our West End Toronto parish of St Matthew’s Islington is coming back after COVID.

We had a change of clergy early in the lockdown which made it difficult to attract newcomers, although we had a robust presence of online services conducted by our new incumbent, the Reverend Phillip Stonhouse. (We also benefit from the presence of former Wycliffe College professor, the Reverend Merv Mercer as an associate.)

To our delight, God has urged “many” new seekers to our door. They come to join in our multi-dimensional Anglican worship services and other programmes. Rev Phillip comes from a family of clergy — both parents serve in Saskatchewan — Phillip however studied acting as his first career. His energy and outgoing personality, along with his great work with the children, has brought about significant change in our church family. His leadership has helped our attendance grow on many fronts including, Messy Church, youth programmes, Growing in Faith Together/GIFT groups as well as Sunday School and worship Services! His leadership is strong, but he is open to creative ideas. Our parish schedule is laid out in advance for the next year, so we all have an understanding of where we are headed.

As the COVID shutdown began we received a request to assist with the making of soup for homeless people who relied on the kitchen at Holy Trinity, Toronto (near the Eaton Centre) which required 200 servings of soup daily. As forty percent of kitchen guests identified as Indigenous, and as many similar support programmes in the city had closed, this need was an important focus for our parish Indigenous working group. We provided soup, and then eventually stew, chilli, rice dishes, shepherd’s pie; in the summer we provided salads to complement what the kitchen provided at other times.

Our parishioners enjoyed the break from being stuck at home. We were able to make it COVID-safe — with masked choppers in one room and the cooks in the other, working with pass-through windows. It was as much a social event as a work effort. This was also coordinated with Toronto Urban Native Ministry and was known as the  “Soups On” programme which continued for over a year and a half. We raised over $6,000 from donations to support the food costs. We also coordinated a coats and clothing drive along with tents and sleeping bags which were needed as many of the hostels and shelters were closed due to COVID.

Once COVID restrictions relaxed, we renamed the work “Beyond Soup.” Now we offer frozen dinners for local families and seniors in need. Anyone in the parish can request meals for anyone who needs assistance with food after an operation, death, illness, etc. Although we are just getting started this pattern works well — our choir director and priest both recently had children, so they also fit in the programme as recipients of care.

I am bringing this to your attention so you and others can understand that when you consider local outreach needs, and once dedicated volunteers are identified, anything is possible (Matt 19:26). Our parish as a whole has been active in outreach programmes for many years, but as our members aged and many of them passed on, we were more focused on the inside needs of the church and less on God’s world around us.

In other ways, our priest is very active in outreach in the residential neighborhood where the church is located. He regularly walks his dog, and engages with other dog owners and neighbours to invite them to our blessing of the animals or our fireworks displays in our parking lot. We had an outdoor pizza night which also drew many young people. Some come to Sunday service; others attend online. Whether online or in-person, while our numbers may not be huge, we are growing and spreading the word; we have a shift in attitude as I see it!

Our Choir Director Tyler Versluis has offered regular concerts with a new organ and a grand piano we recently acquired. Our parish has also drawn a family of musicians who add such glory to both our casual and traditional services — with the addition of instruments including violin, piano and guitar their glorious instrumental voices well complement our small choir. It has been a real boost to our worship and celebrations.

We are grateful to God, and all of the members and clergy of St Matthew’s, as we celebrate our 75th anniversary this year,  and for making this congregation a wonderful community for learning and celebrating the Kingdom of GOD!

UPDATE

Once published, Nancy forwarded her comments to the Rev. Philip Stonhouse, Rector of St. Matthews, who replied:

Nancy, this looks great. I don’t think you got anything wrong, but I might add a few things.

1.           Covid was hard for most churches to attract newcomers, but as restrictions settled, I found out from many newcomers that they had started to watch us online first.

2.           During Covid we tried to find as many ways to connect and to stay connected as well — Phone calls, drive-through communion, online coffee hour, online messy church, online youth games, online choir and more were all a big part of this.

3.           Our 11 am service has also grown, not just the earlier family service. I heard from many who came back, or from those who came in the first place, that there was great energy in the service. I think I played a part in this, but I think the Welcome Committee in their willingness to engage and connect those that come in person, along with their connection calls, had a big effect. This also gave me space and time to do some other invitational events.

4.           Connected with (3) above, I would say the second biggest factor, next to the Holy Spirit leading people, has been a personal connection. I have talked often about how we are a family; I often see people reaching out to newcomers and inviting them in, or welcoming them to Christmas dinner. After I see a newcomer twice, I try to create an opportunity to meet with them personally,  to show that they are an important part of the community and to help them in the next stages of their faith journey.

5.           Some things sadly had to end during/after covid to make room for other things. We did this together though, so as much as we feel a gap it did not cause any major divides or anger (as far as I can tell). Two examples:

Our 8 am BCP service was slowly dwindling — so slowly that we tried doing it only once a month. In the end they found they liked being with the 11 am crowd so, we eventually started doing a BCP service once a month at 11 am instead.

Our Out of the Cold Program which had run for many years faced many hurdles. After many years of not being able to start up much, we eventually disbanded the group and used the space for children’s and youth ministry which was changing and growing. Both of these took years, not days or months.

Ever onward, and thanks for your good efforts. Philip.

4 thoughts on “Parish a-plenty — St. Matthew’s Islington, Toronto UPDATED

Add yours

  1. St. Matthew’s was my home parish, long ago when it was just a basement church, very much community-oriented. I’ve watched from a distance it grow and evolve over the years, and glad of the recent outreach efforts. Much credit to Nancy and Deborah Hurn!

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