A place to stop and rest

St. Andrew by-the-Lake surrounded by trees.
St. Andrew by-the-Lake, located on Toronto Islands, is just a ferry ride away from the city and steps away from the lake.
 on January 30, 2024
Michael Hudson

Island church hosts retreats

“Come away by yourselves and rest a while.” That image is inspiring one parish to open its doors to Anglicans from across the diocese looking for quiet and rest.

As its name suggests, St. Andrew by-the-Lake sits mere metres from Lake Ontario, the only church on the Toronto Islands, but many Anglicans worshipping on the mainland aren’t aware of its presence. “When I asked the question at Synod, ‘How many people know there’s a church on the island?’ and only 25 per cent, I would say, of people put their hand up, it sort of confirmed what I’d been thinking,” says the Rev. Dr. Alison Hari Singh, the priest-in-charge.

After arriving at the parish in August 2021, Ms. Hari Singh was immediately struck by the church’s beautiful surroundings. She recalls one day when she had taken her bike on the ferry and was riding toward the church. “I came around the corner, and this guy was paddleboarding outside of the church,” she says. She asked if she could take a photo of him with the church building. “So he just sort of stood there and waved, and I thought to myself, this is something else. This place is not like other churches.”

But she soon realized that what made St. Andrew by-the-Lake so unique also meant that growth would need to look somewhat different than in other parishes. She knew that the cost and inconvenience of taking a ferry from downtown Toronto were likely to be a barrier to seekers looking for a church home.

“I may be a decent preacher, but no one is going to pay $9.11 to come hear me preach and hear this great music,” she says. “I could just feel that it’s not going to grow in the typical way that we think of church growth, because it costs money to get there, which we can’t get reimbursed. No other church in the city do you have to pay to go to.”

The church building is leased from the City of Toronto with terms that stipulate that it can be used only for religious purposes, so the parish can’t rent its space to a daycare or a sports group, for example, to generate income.

As Ms. Hari Singh thought about a way forward for St. Andrew’s, she started to feel that the same things that might keep new members away would also make the parish an ideal spot for retreats. “The first thing we do on Sunday mornings is we stop, and in the summer all you can hear is the birds. You can hear the wind blowing in the trees. Sometimes you can hear the water lapping and you just come away,” she says.

After considering the idea, she met individually with several of the parish’s past clergy to gauge their reaction, and they all affirmed her instinct. “I had all these clergy who had been there before me telling me what my gut was saying, which is, I think that this really needs to turn into a church and retreat centre,” she says.

This new vision for St. Andrew’s hasn’t unfolded quickly; Ms. Hari Singh has been gradually introducing the idea with the parish leadership and through her preaching on Sunday mornings. “It’s two years of prayer and pushing very gently, just sort of opening up a vision, a new way of thinking about what this parish could become,” she says.

As St. Andrew’s hosted several retreats for parishes last summer, she saw parishioners starting to get excited about more people using the building. But she is also wary of overburdening her lay leaders. “It’s not perfect. We’re not people-rich, so we don’t have a lot of people power,” she says. “This desire to see the place rented could easily turn into a massive case of burnout.”

She hopes that as interest grows, the parish might be able to hire a staff person to manage rentals and retreats. Eventually she’d like to be able to offer packages to parishes that want to bring a group of people over, whether it’s for a quiet day with a speaker, to walk the outdoor labyrinth, to take advantage of the beautiful setting or simply to go to the beach and try paddleboarding.

“I want this place to be like a cathedral to the whole Church, and to feel like you can come here as your church. This is your church,” she says. “There’s a small rental fee, but you can use this building as if it’s your place to be quiet, to take time to rest a while.”

She also encourages retired clergy or clergy on vacation to visit on a Sunday morning as part of their own self-care. “Make a pilgrimage. Make a point of getting your ferry ticket, entering that portal. It’s like going through the Narnia doors, the closet, when you enter this whole new world,” she says.

Anyone interested in helping the parish develop its retreat centre vision is encouraged to contact Ms. Hari Singh at [email protected]. Groups that would like to use the space at St. Andrew’s can visit or email [email protected].


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