The Way We Were

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the February 01, 2012 issue. Reprinted with permission.

To church in Chelsea

foreword by Louise Schwartz: Austin Cross was a popular Ottawa Citizen columnist who frequently wrote about Gatineau Valley topics. This is his column from March 7, 1941, entitled "To Church in Chelsea." It has been edited for length.

by Austin Cross

I went to church in Chelsea last Sunday. It has been a long time since I was in a country church on a Sabbath morning. For once on a Sunday morning I did not whiz by a church. I stopped and went in. Sunday school wasn't quite out. The little group, instead of centering round the pulpit were clustered near the door. This I could not understand till I noted the stove was nearby. They say that cleanliness is next to godliness, but in a country church, you've got to change that in winter to say that not cleanliness but heat, comes next to godliness.

The Way We Were
Do you recognize anyone in this photo? It was snapped fifty years ago, in 1962, on the front steps of the Chelsea United Church on Mill Road, during the church's 100th anniversary celebrations. This year, 2012, marks the church's 150th anniversary. Photo courtesy Gatineau Valley Historical Society.

With the Sunday school over, people started walking down the snowy road to the United church, which seems to be the only one there is in Chelsea. (There is a big Catholic church in Old Chelsea.) It was too cold to stand outside and chat; people all got indoors as soon as possible. The stove at the door was examined by a parishioner, and then someone went up and threw more wood in the other stove at the front. Ladies kept on their coats, and before it was over, I wish I had too. The cold has a way of sifting into the church and knifing you in the small of the back. I did, however, keep my rubbers on. The choir was composed of four young women who arrived on time, and one who got there late, a bit flustered. There was no part singing. What simple hymns they sang had been rehearsed at the practice during the week, in the front parlour of Mrs. Arthur Kenny, who also played the hymns.

The congregation stayed mostly near the back of the church to be near the stove. When about 30 people were inside, the Minister, Rev. R.D. Smith, who lives in Ottawa, started walking toward the pulpit. He had been standing at the back to shake hands with the congregation. Then he did something I have never seen before, and which emphasized the vast difference between a country and city church. He walked over to the stove, turned up the damper a bit, and walked to the pulpit. The sermon dwelt on the fact that life is just a preparation for the next.

What struck me, however, was not so much the fewness of the congregation, but the fact that this church, like so many other country churches, seems to be on the way out. You see such churches all over Canada and all over the United States. That is, you see Protestant Churches. Not Catholic Churches. Then you begin to wonder what the Catholics have got that the Protestant churches lack. Without going into the doctrine and dogma, is it not that the Protestant country church has tended to become a one day institution, while the Catholics, to paraphrase a popular restaurant sign say "We never close."

Translated into ordinary terms, it seems to me that the young people aren't going to church on Sunday, because they aren't encouraged to keep up church contacts during the week-day. Shouldn't there be dances and games; shouldn't there be something during the week to keep the young people coming to church? If you have a place where the girls can meet the boys and the boys can meet the girls, and there is something to keep the young folks amused, it seems to me that you couldn't even drive the girls and boys from the church.

Anyway, Chelsea is still keeping the banner of faith flying. They're not closing, and they show no immediate signs of closing. But there should be more young people in those pews. How to fill them is up to the United Church, not me.

If, on a Sunday morning, when out motoring up near Chelsea you want to see a real old-fashioned country church, bare, perhaps bleak, but operating earnestly, you could stop the car and go inside. It might do you good.

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