Eganville – With a dwindling attendance of around 20 people each Sunday, the congregation of Melville United Church is selling the over century-old church and moving services to another location in the village.
“It is a very difficult decision because many in the congregation were raised here, baptized here, married here,” said Board Chair Claude Jeannotte. “So, we have approached different churches for a place to hold our services.”
While the building will be sold, the congregation will remain, he stressed. The building is not up for sale just yet, but three real estate agents have been approached and are due to bring proposals back to the church soon, he explained.
“We haven’t closed yet,” he said.
The congregation, which sold the adjacent manse beside the church a few years ago, also owns a lot behind the church and it will also be sold, he said.
“But we would remain as a congregation,” he said. “This way we can keep 90 percent of the profits of the sale.”
If the congregation was to disband, the proceeds would go to the head office of the United Church in Toronto where they would be used for Indigenous funding, he explained.
A group from the congregation has been approaching other churches in the area and other locations for a new meeting place.
Mr. Jeannotte said the decision to close is one they could tell was coming for some time and the decline in the attendance at the church pre-dates the COVID pandemic.
“The congregation is getting smaller and smaller,” he said. “On a good Sunday we get 20 people attending church and a lot of them are couples.”
For the church to be financially viable, they would need each person in attendance to give $100 a week and this is just not feasible, he said.
The church has several fixed costs, including the salary of Pastor Michelle Robichaud who is a part-time minister and student.
“We are dictated by head office we have to pay her so much and our funds are diminishing gradually,” he said. “It makes it difficult.”
On a recent Sunday there were 17 people in church and four were couples, so with only about 10 family units contributing to the church, it makes it very tight financially, he said.
“We have to face reality,” he said. “There are quite a few churches around which are in a similar position.”
Mr. Jeannotte was raised Catholic and when he married, he became a Protestant. With a career in the military, he attended the local Protestant chapel on base regardless of denomination and supported the church actively.
“If the church is on the base, you don’t pay the maintenance, the oil, or the minister,” he noted. “All the money in the offering went to charity.”
The reality for churches off base is very different, he was soon made aware on retirement. When coming to the Eganville area in 1993 he began attending Melville United and then shortly was asked to be on the board.
“I’ve been chairman of the board for many years,” he said. “Now, we have to face reality.”
While the sale of the manse offered a brief reprieve, the financial situation at the church has necessitated this further step, he said.
“Our congregation is getting old,” he said. “The youngest is about 65. The young people don’t come to church for some reason.”
The church not too long ago – within the last three decades – was a vibrant hub of activity with various activities and many people attending.
“At one time we had so many kids in Sunday School,” he said. “Now, we don’t have a Sunday School.”
He is painfully aware other churches in the community are also facing a crisis with dwindling congregations.
“It is the same with many others, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the Catholics,” he said.
When the board – comprised of Mr. Jeannotte, Walter Hobden and Michael Johnson – made the recommendation to sell the building all the church members were advised, he said.
“Right now, we are in the process of investigating the sale,” he said.
Mr. Jeannotte said the pending sale of the church building and lot has been hard for many members who have deep family roots in the church.
“It has been a very difficult decision,” he said.
Melville United has been Brenda (MacDonald) Losee’s church all her life, since 1953. She has many fond memories of her time there and is one of the current congregants who has been there the longest. Her family roots also run deep in the building.
“My great-great grandfather, Christie Lisk, was one of the founders of the church,” she said.
She was raised by her grandparents following the death of her mother and her grandmother, Lillian MacDonald, was very active in the church.
As a child she remembers an active Sunday School, Junior Choir and Christmas pageants.
“I sat at the little picnic tables with the red benches,” she said. “When I see them when I go downstairs, I remember that.”
The pending sale of the church building is heart-breaking for her.
“It is like being cut apart from a piece of history and my roots,” she said.
She was baptized, confirmed and married in the church and her children had special milestones there too.
“Everything I look at has memories there,” she said.
Important milestones and faith milestones took place in the church, she said.
Although she will miss the building, she is committed to the congregation and will remain with Melville United wherever they end up meeting.
“We are not disbanding Melville United,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter where you worship.”
Carol Dixon came to Eganville as a young teen and began attending church at Melville United and she still attends each Sunday with her husband, Wayne.
“I’m pretty upset,” she said. “We are losing the building, but we are keeping the congregation.”
The church has been very important to her and her family life.
“It is my life,” she said. “My kids were baptized there. My kids were married there. I was hoping to be buried there, but I guess that is not going to happen.”
While her children all joined the church at one point, they no longer live in the area.
Mrs. Dixon has many fond memories of her time at the church with her family and her fellow church members. Despite the pending sale of the building, she will continue attending church with the congregation wherever they meet.
“We go every Sunday,” she said.
Built in 1915
Built in 1915, the church replaced the Methodist Church there which burned during the fire of 1911 in Eganville. The United Church denomination is made up of the union of Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian Churches.
According to an article in the Peterborough Examiner, where a local United Church was also closing after 150 years, it is estimated about one-third of Canada’s 27,000 churches will close in the next 10 years. The United Church of Canada alone is losing about 300 churches a year across the country, the article concluded.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader