Manitoba History: Place and Replace: Church Union and Church Buildings in Manitoba
by Peter Bush
Church Union, the merging of Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian denominations into the United Church of Canada in 1925, was, in part, a response to the desire of churchgoers in small prairie communities. Therefore, the historical consensus has been that church union was relatively uneventful in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, when compared to the conflicts present in other parts of Canada. An examination of congregational histories reveals, however, that at the local level amalgamating congregations could be disruptive to faith communities.
The way the Presbyterian and Methodist congregations in Boissevain effected amalgamation demonstrates the challenges involved in merging two religious communities. A committee of ten people, five from each congregation, devised the plan. The Methodist church building would house the amalgamated congregation, with the Presbyterian order of service and hymn book being used. Everyone in the amalgamated congregation would feel the familiarity of being at home—either in the physical space or in the worship style—and the disequilibrium of being a stranger—either because they were not at home with the liturgy or because the building was new to them. The leaders of both congregations resigned and both ministers were let go. The combined congregation would elect new leaders and call a new minister. In such a merger, the newly amalgamated church replaced the churches that had been.
Not every Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congre-gationalist congregation found another church to amalgamate with, but many did. In the decade prior to official church union, 130 congregational amalgamations took place in Manitoba; in the year following 10 June 1925, another 50 church mergers were completed. Most early mergers took place in small communities or rural areas. In mid-sized communities like Dauphin, Minnedosa, and Carman, churches often did not amalgamate for two or three years, or even longer, after church union. In Winnipeg, while all but two of the 21 Presbyterian congregations in the city became part of the United Church of Canada, none amalgamated with another congregation in the year following church union. Given the different speeds at which congregations amalgamated, it is more accurate to talk about a series of local church unions, rather than a singular one.
Following an exploration of local church mergers, this article turns to discuss the new congregations that arose in resistance to church union before concluding with an exploration of how congregations disposed of buildings they no longer required.
Pre-1925 Congregational Unions
The desire for union was motivated by a variety of things. Some lay leaders believed bringing two small groups of people together into one larger group for worship and work was a good thing. Larger numbers meant more things got done. More people in a single building was economically efficient, one building to maintain and heat, not two, one minister to support, not two. Two years after entering their local church, the leadership of the Union Church of Cypress River described their experience this way:
Congregational leaders saw their experience as an example of what could happen when denominational divisions were torn down. The congregation, confident of its place and future as a united congregation, hired a Winnipeg architect to design and build a new church building. The “impressive” structure was completed in 1921; the new building becoming visible witness to the “impressive” results of local church union.
Bringing two congregations together into one was not always easy. At Wawanesa, the decision to unite was made in 1912 because “to worship and work together using one building was good spiritually and economically.” The union lasted two years before collapsing in 1914. The two congregations remained separate entities until 1916 when union was again tried. The united congregation worshipped in the Presbyterian building, and to prevent any thought by the Methodists of returning to their church building, the leadership of the union congregation had the former Methodist Church building moved and attached to the former Presbyterian Church building. This move, noted the local historian, made union “permanent.” If not guaranteeing permanence, the physical joining of the buildings made it much harder to break up again.
At times, the motivation to union was the lack of clergy. At Lena in the RM of Turtle Mountain, the Presbyterians had a building which was used by the Methodists and the Anglicans for their worship services. The three congregations were all served by student ministers. With the coming of the First World War, many young men, including theological students, went to war, dramatically reducing the number of persons available to preach. To make it easier to ensure regular worship would take place, the three denominations combined in one service, and rejoiced to have someone from any of the participating denominations come to lead worship.
Many congregational leaders in small communities across Manitoba were unwilling to wait for the protracted conversations at the Presbyterian General Assembly and for the Methodist General Conference to reach a conclusion. Local needs and analysis led to local decisions for local unions.
Church Unions of 1925
While a number of congregations united prior to 1925, many in Manitoba waited until 1925 to complete local unions. In smaller communities where there was only a Presbyterian or Methodist congregation, most of the time congregations simply changed the name on the door and union was accomplished. At Starbuck, the Presbyterian congregation voted to unite “without one vote of dissent.” It was a “painless step into amalgamation” because there was no other congregation with which to amalgamate; joining the United Church involved only a name change.
Being on good terms with congregations of other denominations, even sharing buildings, was not the same thing as becoming a united congregation. Victoria Presbyterian Church and Balmoral Methodist Church in the RM of Rockwood shared the same building but remained separate congregations until November 1925 because becoming one took time.
Some congregations showed great sensitivity to the congregation joining them, seeking to ease the union. At Foxwarren, when it was agreed the Presbyterians would join the Methodists at Victoria Methodist Church, the building was renamed Westminster United Church. The name “Westminster” had significance for Presbyterians because it put the emphasis on the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Sometimes the unions were not complete unions; a faction remained outside the united congregation. In Carberry, the Methodists entered union but the Presbyterian congregation voted to stay out. Yet, “a number of families” of Presbyterian faith joined the United Church. A congregational meeting was held to allow the enlarged congregation to select new elders to lead in the new reality.
A number of the local church unions accomplished in 1925 were the anticlimactic completions of long-term processes. The following description typifies what some congregations felt about official Church Union: “... there wasn’t too much enthusiasm ... partly because church union had been exemplified in small prairie churches when religious leaders were scarce and everyone worshipped wherever there was a minister regardless of denomination.”
Sometimes the Methodist and Presbyterian congregations in a community both entered the United Church, but remained separate entities, worshipping in their own buildings for many years following official union. The challenges of joining two congregations were so daunting that a number of church leaders were hesitant to attempt an amalgamation. This pattern can be seen not just in cities where it was possible to support multiple congregations, but there was also hesitancy in some smaller communities where church union was economically beneficial.
The congregations of Grace Methodist and St. James Presbyterian in Dauphin both voted in favour of amalgamation. Not until 1927, however, did congregational leaders start discussions about amalgamation, and only because in both congregations “an agitation began to get on with the business of union.” A further two years went by before on 30 June 1929 the two congregations met together as one congregation. In Portage la Prairie, Knox (formerly Presbyterian) Church and Grace (formerly Methodist) Church, functioned “in their respective churches as separate congregations” until amalgamation in 1935. The pressures of the Depression apparently impacted the decision to amalgamate. As part of the amalgamation process, the cornerstone from Grace Church was extracted and placed in the Knox Church building. The amalgamated church was built on two cornerstones.
By far the most drawn-out process discovered was the case of St. Paul’s United Church in Souris. With official union, Knox Presbyterian became Knox United and Fifth Avenue Methodist became Fifth Avenue United. They remained separate congregations until 1938 when an arrangement was made to worship together but remain separate entities, involving six months per year of worship at Knox and the other six months at Fifth Avenue. Not until 1946, 21 years after union, was a single congregation, St. Paul’s United, formed.
At times, forces beyond the control of congregations brought about unanticipated amalgamations. The former Methodist Church in Clanwilliam burned in May 1928 and the congregation joined with the other United Church in town, the former Presbyterian congregation. Five years later, in the middle of the Depression, they built a new building which could comfortably house the enlarged congregation. Sometimes waiting to complete amalgamation had unexpected benefits.
Congregations Saying “No” to Church Union
While more muted in Manitoba than in most places in Canada, there was opposition to church union, almost entirely from Presbyterians. The number of Presbyterians resisting union was a minority. Approximately 80% of prairie Presbyterians became part of the United Church; between 1924 and 1927, the number of Presbyterians in the three prairie provinces fell from 61,000 to 12,000. Seventeen Presbyterian congregations in Manitoba—including those at Neepawa, Hartney, Selkirk, and Kildonan— voted to stay Presbyterian. Many others wishing to remain Presbyterian after 1925 were displaced from their former congregations which had become United Church congregations. These displaced Presbyterians formed new congregations which strove to claim their place both spiritually and historically. By 31 March 1926, there were sixteen congregations of Presbyterians in Manitoba that had come into being following 10 June 1925.
Winnipeg, which had been one of the most Presbyterian cities in the country, overnight became a United Church city as all eight of its large downtown Presbyterian congregations entered union. From the Presbyterian churches entering the United Church came people unhappy with the decisions of their former congregations. Westminster (formerly Presbyterian) United Church lost 127 members, 11% of its membership. Not only would this loss have been significant for Westminster, it became a significant addition to the new congregation that Presbyterians in the city were seeking to start. After unproductive conversations with the Trustees of the former St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, the congregation of displaced Presbyterians decided to erect a new building. First Presbyterian Church, Winnipeg, a stone Gothic Revival building, declared a permanence and stability which challenged any who might suggest Presbyterianism in Winnipeg was finished.
In Portage la Prairie and Brandon, Presbyterians unwilling to follow their former congregations into union named their newly formed congregations “First” as well. While not rivalling Winnipeg’s stone structure, all three buildings declared their permanence with brick or stone. The displaced Presbyterians in Portage la Prairie symbolically claimed their local Presbyterian history as on 28 July 1927 the cornerstone for the new Presbyterian Church was laid, exactly 46 years after the laying of the cornerstone of the 1881 Knox Presbyterian building. The remaining Presbyterians had obtained the cornerstone from the 1881 building and laid it together with a new cornerstone as twin cornerstones for the new building. First Presbyterian Church was heir to Presbyterianism in Portage la Prairie.
The case of the Presbyterian Church in Roland, Manitoba shows tensions could arise in a struggle over a building and its meaning. A majority of the Presbyterian congregation in Roland voted to enter church union, 92 to 50, walking up the street to the Methodist building to join them. The minister of the Presbyterian congregation, opposing union and having the keys to the Presbyterian building, continued to lead worship there Sunday by Sunday with a significantly reduced congregation. He argued the building was a Presbyterian building and the true Presbyterian congregation was using the building. Only when the local United Church began court action was the situation resolved with the Presbyterian congregation buying the former Presbyterian building and manse from the United Church.
The Disposal of Excess Buildings
When congregations amalgamated they were left with property they no longer needed. To what purpose would these buildings and land be put? Undeveloped land and manses were easily sold and the cash realized was useful to the amalgamated congregation. Disposing of a church building, however, raised challenges. Church buildings acquired sacred meaning as spiritual connections were made in and with the space. War memorials and dedicated furniture could be transferred to a new space, but the memories of religious experiences could not be moved as easily. A church building’s disposal meant the place housing those spiritual memories was gone, removing a tangible link to those events.
Choosing one building over another to house the amalgamated congregation was an implicit statement that one building was better than the other. Was the community of people who had built the building being retained superior to the group whose building was declared excess?
Aware of the challenges involved with getting rid of a building, congregations sometimes kept both church buildings; one used for worship, the other as a church hall or the like. In Holland, the Methodist church building was joined to the Presbyterian as an “assembly hall” while in Newdale, the roles were reversed, the Presbyterian Church the church hall, the Methodist building the sanctuary. The building no longer hosting worship services was still used for spiritual purposes; both parts of the amalgamated congregation had made a physical contribution to the congregation’s spiritual space.
A few amalgamating congregations “merged” their two buildings into one. Forrest United Church was built in 1929 using building material from the Methodist building in Forrest and the Presbyterian Church in Humesville. The “merged” building had an identity drawn from the precedent church buildings, just as the amalgamated faith community had an identity formed from the two congregations.
Some amalgamated congregations unable to use all their buildings sold those deemed excess. Buildings were sold to other Christian denominations and remained places of worship: the Presbyterian Church in Bayfield became St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church in Russell and Belmont Methodist was sold to a Pentecostal congregation. In some cases the purchasing congregation was made up of individuals who opposed church union and wanted to set up a new Presbyterian church. A United Church congregation needed particular grace to help those opposed to church union by providing them with a building in which they could meet. In Morden, the Presbyterian minority bought Knox Church, so the losing side kept the Presbyterian building and the winning side left to join the Methodists at the renamed St. Paul’s United Church.
At times the building could not be put to a spiritual use, so church buildings were sold for non-spiritual purposes. Some congregations sold their building to be a school, as happened in Pilot Mound. The Methodist building in Manitou became the town’s fire hall. A few church buildings ended up in community museums, but there was a limit to how many such buildings the museums needed. St. James Presbyterian Church in Dauphin was torn down and “on the lot where it had stood, the fine new Federal Building was erected.” The author’s pride is evident; the land’s repurposing benefitted the entire community. Church buildings were sold to community groups; for example, the Methodist building in Minnedosa became the Masonic Hall as did the Methodist building in Morris. While a building or land could be repurposed for the benefit of the community, the buildings’ physical presence reminded people of what had been given up in the congregational amalgamations.
At times, congregations could not find a community group willing to buy the excess buildings. Some rural buildings became granaries or storage sheds on farms. This happened to Umatilla Presbyterian near Grandview and Carmel Presbyterian near Snowflake. The Treherne Methodist building became a dance hall and movie theatre. The irony of a Methodist building becoming a dance hall is striking. Unfortunately, no records have been found of the conversations leading up to the sale. Surely this radical repurposing of the building would have created discussion.
The disposal of sacred space, thick with meaning, added to the challenges involved in merging congregations. Careful thought and a bit of luck were needed if leaders were to treat sacred space with the respect it deserved.
Reading congregational histories reveals the dislocation caused by church union, not just for the “losers” but also for the “winners.” Thousands of Manitoba churchgoers had replaced the locus of their spiritual lives. The dislocation was physical, as dozens of congregations moved into new-to-them buildings, and also social, as those attending the new church community were not the same as those who had attended the pre-union congregation. New people joined; long-time participants left. In addition, church union was spiritually dislocating, for the sacred meanings of place were moved in some cases, lost in others, and at times merged with other meanings. These multi-layered dislocations are evident in renamed, refurnished, remodeled, and repurposed church buildings. Any discussion of church union in Manitoba must recognize that it is more accurate to speak of a collection of local church unions over a 25-year period, than to speak of a single event unfolding in a similar way in each community.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 11 December 2020