It's Sunday morning, Thelma Campbell is seated at the front of the church. As usual.
Campbell, 91, has been a member of St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Irishtown, P.E.I. for more than 70 years.
For more than 50 of those years, she was the church sexton; responsible for upkeep and cleaning as well as changing the altar hangings for each of the church’s seasons.
She was also the caretaker of the coal furnace, which had to be tended throughout the night.
“My husband made me a billy, in case I came into some trouble,” she recalls today.
Armed with the sturdy club, Campbell walked the short distance from home to church alone, along the Irishtown Road, braving the winter nights to keep the congregation warm.
Campbell was also involved in the Anglican Church Women (ACW) and the Junior Auxiliary, as well as being the leader of Bible study, a Sunday school teacher, a “chief cook and bottle washer,” she jokes.
St. Stephen’s, part of the New London Anglican Parish, has been welcoming worshippers for 165 years.
The congregation marked the anniversary on Oct. 25, with cupcakes, a trivia contest and special prayers and readings for the occasion.
The modest “carpenter Gothic” style structure was built in 1855 and was just 40 feet long and 26 feet wide. A choir loft is still accessed by a narrow, low-ceilinged staircase and offers a panorama of the church’s assets.
The chancel and vestries – the area at the front of the church containing the altar and two rooms off to each side - were added in 1903.
A steeple was added later and in 1992, the church was lifted and a basement hall with washrooms and a kitchen was added.
But history is more than dates and facts, says Rev. Margie Fagan.
“St. Stephen’s church as we know it, stands here as a testament to the faith of the ancestors, you know the names of those people. You know what they’ve done down through the years. You’ve taken part in all that fundraising, that worship, the parlour games, the fellowship,” said Fagan in her sermon. “We love this place, this church. We look back on the history of St. Stephen’s church with thanksgiving, admiration and nostalgia.
"We still need that.”
In the 1800s, around 200 people attended services regularly and it would have been a tight fit. Notes from the time say worshippers listened from outside, through the open windows.
These days, though, the numbers of people in the church are dwindling.
“That’s why we want to celebrate this year,” says Jessie Adams.
Like Campbell, Adams is a long-time congregant and former warden and church treasurer. As numbers fall, they’re just not sure what the future will bring to the four churches in the parish.
“Nobody wants to see their church close,” says Adams.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sundays at St. Stephen’s saw about 40 people in the pews, these days, there are close to 20 each week, she says.
All four churches serve a purpose in the pandemic, social distancing is easier, but operating four churches is becoming a struggle.
“Especially with winter coming. Why heat four buildings?” asks Adams.
Rev. Fagan believes in the importance of Sunday worship in a dedicated place.
Church is a gathering place for people to come and worship God, as well as enjoy the fellowship of each other, she says.
“We can pray anywhere, and I have done, but it doesn’t mean we can’t pray in community. I can go for a walk on the beach and pray and sermonize, but I still need to be in community,” says Fagan.
Started in 1903 as the Women’s Auxiliary (WA), the ACW has been one of the pillars of the church community and activities.
In the 1952 Parish Report, the rector said the women’s auxiliary was “a big wheel in the driving gear of our parish.”
A History of the Pastoral Unit of New London and Springfield, published in 2001, said the WA “increased church participation by women and their families and went a long way to making the church self-supporting.”
In 2019, the St. Stephen’s AWC held eight meetings, sent greeting cards to church members, made treats for the sick and for Christmas, sent 10 Christmas boxes to seamen, donated mittens and money to the Kensington Lions Club for Christmas hampers, donated picture books for seniors in manors, gave an afghan to a cancer patient, donated items to children at the Prince County Hospital, sent a donation to various international health-care organizations, collected can tabs for Shriners, collected postage stamps for the Canadian Bible Society and helped at various meals at St. Stephen’s and other churches in the parish.
Alison Jenkins, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Journal-Pioneer