Last time the Pool's Island St. James church bell rang. October 9th, 2020.
Pool’s Island St. James Anglican Church has been the centre of the community for over 155 years, from the greatest life moments of weddings, christenings and holiday Christmas concerts to the deepest sorrow of funerals and memorial services. That is what you feel when you enter this place of worship.
Like most people in the community, my childhood revolved around the church, whether it was attending church service, Sunday school, Anglican Church Women fundraising suppers or ringing the church bell at midnight when someone left the community.
With the deconsecration of the St. James Church, the community of Pool’s Island has lost more than just a building, they have lost a member of the community that had shared in all its life’s moments. When I heard of the deconsecration of our church, it struck me very hard as if I had lost a part of my childhood. This place has so many memories; it is where I last viewed my grandparents before the funeral services. Therefore, on the day of the last service, I travelled the four-hour journey from St. John’s to try and capture that last memorial service for the building that had provided us with a sense of comfort in those life moments.
Unlike 100 years ago, church is mostly used as a place for weddings and funerals. Long gone are the days when the church was the focal point of a community. Everyone would meet at the church and greet each other because it was more than community, it was family. If someone needed a roof shingled, people in the community would just show up to help. If someone was in a hard financial place, people would deliver food, clothing, and other necessities. If there was a death in the community, people would show up with food and offer condolences.
I still remember the passing of my grandfather. There was so much food in the house that it seemed more like a party than a funeral. I guess losing the church was like losing my grandfather all over again, because I know how much it meant to him. I know that residents of Pool’s Island feel the same way about St. James as about a loved one. The most life-changing memories happened in our church.
While the building had lots of character, the events that happened inside held their own unique characteristics as well. When you walk into the old building, you can smell the carpet that has been walked on a thousand times. Walking down the church aisle, you can hear the creaking of the old boards beneath your feet, and when you sit down on the benches with the 90-degree back support, you can hear them creaking too. The creaking and cracking of the walls from the wind blowing on this elderly structure seems like the ghosts of years’ worth of community members attending our church service once again.
Singing hymns was one of the most entertaining things to do during a church service. The building itself was so large that voices echoed through the place, so when the church choir and congregation started to sing it was hard to stay in rhythm. There were different kinds of singers, from the ones that would just move their lips to those who could not carry a note. But they were there to sing the word of the Lord and did not care what it sounded like.
The traditional bangs during the singing of the hymns were another feature of our St. James Church service. The dropping of the hymn books or the knocking over of a footstool were always entertaining as the sound would echo through the church. Usually, a silence would follow when people started looking around to see who the culprit was.
That old dusty smell, the unique sounds and the sight of the red and white walls – those are the senses that combine to develop those fond memories of our lost community member.
The question becomes why we had to lose our beloved church. A simple change in society’s norms and values is the answer. Years ago, when someone got their paycheck, the church was paid first. When was the last time we donated money to the church? With the shift in people’s values, the church is now the last thing most people pay. Of course, there are still those faithful people that continue to support the church, and without these people St. James Church and many other struggling outport churches would have been gone years ago.
As we lose another church in another small outport community, are we losing more than our religion? Are we losing our way of life? Are we losing the very thing that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are known for – a common love for community, sharing and helping the fellow person? Where did our world-famous hospitality come from? It did not come from away. It was born in the local church of every little outport community around the shores of this great province.
I sure hope that with the closing of each church we don’t lose another part of our heritage and way of life.
As I write this at Christmas, I do believe that church is still a part of our society and that it develops goodwill and community spirit, which can help us get through these pandemic years. At least around this time of year, we can all share a little bit of goodwill towards family, friends and strangers, like our church-going ancestors have done for centuries.
Prints of Pool's Island St. James Church available here: