During the midst of the pandemic, when things looked bleak, a new church in the diocese was born.
The Church of the Holy Wisdom came into being earlier this year, the result of a lot of hard work, perseverance and deep faith.
“It showed such holy resilience that people hung on to a vision of the church being together,” says the Rev. Gerlyn Henry, priest-in-charge.
Holy Wisdom is an amalgamation of three former churches – St. Ninian’s, St. John the Divine and St. Peter’s, all located within a short drive of each other in central Scarborough. After many discussions over the years, the churches decided to try to amalgamate.
There was just one big problem: the COVID-19 pandemic had hit and churches across the diocese, as in the rest of Canada, were shuttered and had to do almost everything online, including holding worship services and meetings.
Bringing three churches together can be challenging at the best of times, but to do it in the middle of a pandemic was particularly daunting. Important conversations and social gatherings that usually happen in person had to be done on Zoom.
“It was really challenging, but the willingness of this group to persevere is a testament to their commitment to Anglican ministry in the area,” says Janet Marshall, the director of the diocese’s Congregational Development department, which assisted the churches throughout the process, along with a team of talented diocesan volunteers and Bishop Kevin Robertson, the area bishop.
Rather than giving up or delaying a decision until the pandemic ended, the churches pushed ahead and eventually voted to amalgamate. The decision was unanimous save one vote. The new church came into being on Jan. 1, 2022.
Like any newborn, Holy Wisdom experienced some growing pains. For the first few months, the congregations still couldn’t worship together or socialize in person due to the pandemic. But they forged on, providing online BCP and BAS services.
“They cross-pollinated and got to meet each other,” says Ms. Henry. “I think it worked well because there was a healthy trial period to see what worship looked like without having to commit your body to it.”
Eventually the pandemic restrictions were lifted and the three congregations worshipped together in person for the first time on Pentecost (June 5). The service, held in the former St. Peter’s building, featured traditions from all three congregations.
“It was mind-blowing because there were so many traditions in that one liturgy, but they had figured out how to honour their own legacies,” recalls Ms. Henry.
One of the strengths of the new parish is its hospitality, which was on display in the spring. In addition to the Pentecost service, the church held a farewell celebration for the Rev. Canon Derek Stapleton, the interim priest-in-charge, and an induction service for Ms. Henry – all occasions for gathering and eating together.
“All of our tables where we eat only accommodate six people, and people didn’t sit with people they knew; they intentionally sat with people they didn’t know, without even naming that,” says Ms. Henry. “Maybe that’s a Scarborough trait – that you meet and greet people you don’t know.”
This is Ms. Henry’s first time in charge of a parish, and in a way it’s a homecoming. Her family came to Canada when she was four, settling in Scarborough. She spent her early years there before moving away with her family. This is her first time back.
“I have a heart for Scarborough and for a lot of the new immigrants here,” she says. “Part of what I want to do is have our parish be a welcoming parish. If you’re new, if you’re unsure, if you have doubts about God, come here.”
The church has a welcoming website and Facebook page, and Ms. Henry is active on Tik Tok, where her video commentaries on God, Christianity and issues of the day have attracted a large following.
She is excited to be in her first post but also nervous – something she embraces. “I keep asking God, what is it you’ve called me here for? I think the opportunities are immense but I’m also really nervous. But I name that, because I think that allows other people to also be nervous in this amalgamation.”
She is passionate about reaching out to the surrounding community, and the church is already doing that through its food pantry. Originally a food bank at the former St. Ninian’s, the pantry provides food and other items for free to anyone who comes in.
Through the pantry, groups in the church are finding a way to reach out to the community. The Altar Guild, for example, provides flowers, and leftover food and beverages from the coffee hour are given away as well.
After a period of rest over the summer, the church plans to meet with an architect to discuss how to make the building look like a new place of worship, where everyone in the new parish can call home. They also want to make the building fully accessible.
It’s still early days for Holy Wisdom and other challenges will arise, but Ms. Henry is confident that the congregation will overcome them. “The amalgamation wasn’t just by happenstance,” she says. “It was intentional. Holy Wisdom reflects people of really strong faith.”