The sound of the chiming bell, which resonates through the village of Cumberland every Sunday morning to signify the beginning of the service at Cumberland United Church, will be heard for the final time Nov. 26.
The church will be closing its doors and the congregation disbanding, after nearly 130 years in the Comox Valley.
There will be a special farewell service this Sunday, Oct. 29, “to celebrate its long and faithful history and mourn its loss.”
It is not how Rev. Elaine Julian envisioned her tenure ending.
When Rev. Julian first arrived at Cumberland United in September of 2014 for her posting as what would be the church’s final minister, she was not yet even ordained.
“I was working on my master of divinity degree,” she said. “I had done volunteer work with the church for years, but that was my first paid appointment.”
Julian is a resident of Campbell River, and a long-time member of that congregation. She said looking back at her time in Cumberland, although the closure is a sad conclusion, it’s not a huge surprise.
“The finances there… there are times that they have been OK, but they have mostly been precarious. When I look back, there have been numerous times when the church was close to closing, but it’s always been avoided in one way or another – either someone has stepped in with some money, or we’ve received a grant – something has always postponed it.”
There will be no postponement this time.
Julian said many different things have led to the demise of the church.
“We had a couple of good renters, who are no longer there. They also didn’t have a minister for a while so they were saving money; then, when they took me on as a student, they got a student grant, from the United Church of Canada, which gave them some breathing room. But we lost one of the renters, and we lost the student grant, after I was ordained. So then we could see that our finances were not going to take us much further. But when I first started, there was a certain amount of optimism that we would be able to carry on.”
Julian said she felt immediately welcome into the Cumberland United community.
“It’s a really welcoming community – I think it’s something they are kind of famous for, in a way. I felt welcome immediately.”
Julian expects her congregation of approximately 30 to disperse to one other churches in the area.
Including the churches in Union Bay and Denman Island, there are four United Churches remaining in the Comox Valley (St. George’s in Courtenay, and Comox United are the others).
“The thing that’s a loss for our people is not that there are no other options, but what brings a lot of people to Cumberland is the small, intimate worshipping community,” said Julian. “That will be the loss.”
Inclusivity the key
Alana Mullaly and her three young daughters are regular attendees to the service, even though they now live in Royston.
“We have been here seven years,” said Alana. “Cumberland Church resonates with us because it is such a welcoming place. It really, truly is ‘come as you are.’ ”
She said Cumberland United – and in her experience, the United Church as a whole – does a commendable job of including the children at a young age, which, ideally, will stick with them throughout their lives.
“This congregation in particular makes it really easy for the kids to own their own relationship with the Church,” said Mullaly. “The kids have really been able to carve out a place for themselves and they really feel like they too, belong, and they can take ownership for it. We even do a children-led worship once a year, so they are responsible … to choose all the songs and decide what the topic of the sermon will be.
“I think this will be a big loss, but… there’s more to the church than just the building, and that is easy to lose sight of, because this is such a great sanctuary. But there is more and that’s the thing… we just have to go out there and find it.”
Mullaly has not yet decided what her family will do, moving forward.
“I’m not sure. Once you find a place, it’s really hard to replicate. It’s really important for me to keep giving to our community through the United church, so I am sure we will land somewhere, I’m just not sure where that will be.”
Linda Safford has been active with the Cumberland United Church for 20 years. She said the reason she originally got involved was to get a children’s choir going in the community.
“I approached Pastor Peter Thompson, who was the minister back then, and asked if we could use the church for that program. He said yes, so we – myself and Susan Hargreaves – ran that program for about a year. I did music and she did crafts, and then we would have a dinner for the children at the end of the sessions.”
Safford said there is a possibility that the church could become a heritage site.
“The church building and land are owned by BC Conference, which is the regional governing body of the United Church of Canada, so it will be up to them,” said Safford. “Something that I have advocated for is that we try to find, within the community, organizations that would be willing to fundraise collaboratively, to be able to purchase the church and keep it in the community. I’ve also spoken to Mayor Leslie Baird about designating a heritage status to the church and she said the village is quite willing to do that. However, we need to have the authorization to do that, of the owners, so we will find that out…”
Safford said one of the funniest stories she will always remember is the one about the church frog.
“There is one story that actually happened before I was even a member of the church, but everyone still talks about it – the Cumberland frog story. One day [a parishioner] brought a pot of begonias into the church, and it turned out there was a frog in the pot. The people heard the croaking and thought it was the organ at first. But when the organ stopped, the croaking continued. There’s even a song about it, written by Rev. John Fullerton, who was the minister back then – The Cumberland Frog Song – and soon after someone brought in a ceramic frog and that became property of the church.”
Another aspect of Cumberland United that will be missed in the community is the live nativity scene every Christmas.
“That service was always so special – the church would be full every year, which doesn’t happen often, for services,” said Safford. “And the live nativity scene was a huge draw.”
“We always have a flock of kids, and we always have a full stage,” said Mullaly.
Julian said a photo she took early on in her tenure will serve as a lasting memory to the make-up and character of her congregation.
“There’s a little coffee table at the back of the sanctuary, where there’s a couch and some books. Everybody was downstairs for the potluck lunch and on the coffee table was all the kids’ shoes, and one dog leash. And that just struck me that that’s what Cumberland Church is all about – a place where you could be that comfortable. Where the kids could take off their shoes and run around… and we still do have dogs attending our worship.”
Julian said the congregation’s acceptance of allowing her free rein is what she will miss most.
“There’s an openness to whatever I might want to do with worship. A lot of churches are quite [stagnant]… ‘we’ve always done it this way.’ Cumberland has never been like that. It’s been wonderful as a new and learning minister, to have new things embraced.”
Sunday’s special farewell service will start at 11 a.m.