FOLLOWING a recent Sunday morning service at St. Andrew's United Church, Jean Holt was surprised when two strangers suddenly appeared on the doorstep of the popular City of North Vancouver place of worship.
While the majority of the congregation had already filed out of the double doors and down the wooden steps, Holt (the church board's chairwoman), Rev. Judith Hardcastle and longtime congregation member Anne Kaario had stayed behind to chat.
"We were talking and all of a sudden these two people walked in," says Holt. "They were German tourists, they'd ridden their bicycles up the hill. They got off the Seabus, saw the spire and they followed it up," says Holt.
For 100 years, St. Andrew's United Church, located at 1044 St. Georges Ave., has been a landmark on the North Shore, due in part to its physical appearance - a shingle-clad wood frame adaptation of the Gothic Revival style, complete with corner steeple and stained glass windows.
But the church is also well known for its longstanding service and commitment to the community. In addition to regular church programming for children and adults, St. Andrew's hosts a variety of occasions, like weddings, baptisms and funerals, and is used by a wide range of community groups, from a local preschool to the Royal Conservatory of Music.
"We've always felt like we're a beacon," says congregation member Gail Sokalski.
Constructed in 1912, the church's history is interwoven with that of the North Shore, adapting and changing with the times. To mark the building's centennial, a weekend of activities is being presented, Sept. 29-30.
In her role as co-ordinator of the centenary celebration, Sokalski has spent the last few months poring over the history of St. Andrew's. While the Lynn Valley resident has countless personal memories - born in 1953, she and her siblings were baptized and married there - she has immersed herself in its recorded history, unearthing countless insights into its past.
"Some of the people who are founders of our church were founders of the community and their families are still here today," she says.
Thanks to the histories compiled over the years by those who've gone before her, as well as records housed at the North Vancouver Museum and Archives and the University of British Columbia's Vancouver School of Theology, Sokalski's quest to compile an account of St. Andrew's origins has proven fruitful. The church's roots go back to 1865 when Methodist Rev. Ebenezer Robson, from New Westminster, crossed the Burrard Inlet to Moodyville in a dugout canoe and held the first service for nonnative settlers on the North Shore. Robson continued to make the trek into the 1900s, holding services in various North Shore residents' homes. In 1910, a Methodist church was opened on Sixth Street.
The first St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church was built in 1904, also on Sixth Street. The cornerstone of St. Andrew's, as it's known today, was later laid in 1912 on land donated by George McBain and was built at a contract price of a little less than $20,000. St. Andrew's remained Presbyterian until 1926. The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 with the amalgamation of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches, and one year later the North Shore churches followed suit, joining together under one roof.
"We do have a rich heritage, just going back, I'm learning about people who have made significant impacts on the community," says Sokalski.
One was Margaret Fulton who was a deaconess who gave pastoral care to seniors on the North Shore. Her legacy lives on through the Margaret Fulton Centre, initially based at St. Andrew's, though now housed at 1601 Forbes Ave., in North Vancouver, and offering adult day programs through Vancouver Coastal Health.
"Margaret Fulton was an amazing woman that had a major impact on the community, and we're really happy to know that she grew from this church," says Sokalski.
Another member, May Leland, ran a wellused welfare program. "She gathered clothing and household items that she would sell at a nominal fee or give away to needy families," says Sokalski.
Leland's longstanding service to the community is honoured with a plaque in the current church office.
Sokalski, who plans to complete an account of her findings and keep it at the church for future generations, has also been connecting with longserving St. Andrew's members.
"We have members of our congregation who have been here since the '20s," she says.
That includes North Vancouver resident Joan Casley, 85, who's been a member since she was first included on the "cradle roll" at age three. Casley's family lived upstairs in another North Vancouver landmark, the "blue building" at St. Andrews Avenue and East Eighth Street, which currently houses new café Andrew's on Eighth. Her father ran a butcher shop there until she was six.
"It's stood the test of time," she says of her church.
Casley has fond memories of attending St. Andrew's prior to the Second World War when, she says, life was much simpler - everyone walked everywhere, the stores were closed on Sundays and most people attended church. She recalls summer church picnics on Bowen Island and CGIT (Canadian Girls in Training) trips to a camp near White Rock at Ocean Park on Semiahmoo Bay.
"The life at the church, there was always something going on," says Casley. "The church was always the centre of your social life really in those days."
Over the years, she's held a number of roles at St. Andrew's, including president of the United Church Women, a board member, and currently serves as a member of the board of trustees. She can regularly be found at the Sunday service
"When you've gone there all your life, you know all the people," says Casley. "There's a lot of us that are still there. It's a lifetime of friendships with the people that you meet at the church. You all have the same views on living. It's just been great."
Casley is looking forward to the centennial weekend and expects many friends and family to come from out of town in honour of the occasion. "There will be a lot of reminiscing," she says.
Today, the congregation of St. Andrew's United Church is approximately 200-strong and members attend a weekly Sunday morning worship at 10 a.m. The church has a talented music and choral program led by Jennifer Stephanson.
Members serve the community in a variety of ways, including offering a Thursday drop-in program and Sharing Abundance community lunch serving the homeless as well as those living in isolation. The church supports First United Church in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, making sandwiches once a month, as well as conducting clothing drives.
Community outreach is an important focus and members organize a number of programs and events, including an annual teddy bears picnic, pet blessing ceremonies and a host of Christmasthemed events.
"It's important for us to connect to the community, to give to the community and to open our doors and use ourselves as a resource for people who might not belong to the church. This just gives them a feeling of community, especially for people in our area," says Sokalski.
According to Rev. Judith Hardcastle - who's officially served as minister since January, though has been involved with St. Andrew's for the last six years - fighting for social justice is also an important focus of St. Andrew's.
"This fall especially, the focus is on being environmentally conscious on many a front, including not only our practises at the church, but also justice issues; for instance, the (Northern Gateway) Pipeline," says Hardcastle, adding the United Church
of Canada's general council had a meeting in Ottawa in mid-August. "There's going to be a lot of press about how we're unequivocally opposed. We're really into environmental justice, fair trade, all that kind of stuff."
Hardcastle is also currently a year into an 18-month green faith fellowship, a multi-faith program focused on marrying faith with environmental issues. St. Andrews has had a green team for the last five years, though it's largely been inactive, something Hardcastle is looking to change.
"We have some really significant goals for the fall. We'd like to make St. Andrew's 'The Green Church' - recognizably green in many ways in its policies and practises," she says.
This fall, the church is offering a number of new programs and events, including Writing The Sacred: A Psalm-Writing Workshop; a play, Testament of a Naked Man: Good News of Mark; Shambhala Buddhist meditation; and, an Open Sanctuary, Tuesdays to Fridays, from 9 a.m. to noon, beginning Tuesday, Sept. 11.
"I think in this little old world of ours we're now multicultural, so Christianity isn't the only way. But Christianity is our way," says Hardcastle. "So we'd like to make available to people spiritual practises, not necessarily religion, but spirituality."
Its willingness to grow and adapt to a changing society is what those involved credit as to why St. Andrew's has endured for so many years.
"Going back through the history, that's what I'm finding . . ." says Sokalski. "It's been surprising how progressive the congregation has been when you look through the decades, the things they've come up with way before their time has been really surprising."
For example, the United Church of Canada has long ordained women and had a willingness to marry same-sex partners and continues to speak out on the Israeli-Palestinian debate.
"Our feet are firmly planted in the 21st century," says Hardcastle.
"The United Church, we believe that the church needs to change contextually. As the demographics change, we change. As the times change, we change with it."
In honour of its centennial, free festivities are being offered over two days at St. Andrew's. On Saturday, Sept. 29, an open house is being held from noon to 4 p.m. Guests can tour the building and look at a display of the church's history and collected memorabilia (including baptism and bridal clothing, choral and Sunday school pageant mementos, and photographs). A hymn sing will be held and the newly repaired church chimes will ring.
"The steeple was never actually meant for bells. It was just meant as a sign and a symbol in the community," says Sokalski. However, in 1947 a speaker system was installed so electronic chimes could ring, modelled after the bells of St. Margarets. Unfortunately, the St. Andrew's chimes have been broken for a number of years.
"As a centennial project, we thought wouldn't it be wonderful to have them ring again. They're lovely," says Sokalski.
On Sunday, Sept. 30, a special 10 a.m. service is planned, followed by a 7 p.m. choral concert, Voices Unite, featuring the St. Andrew's choir as well as various other North Shore United Church ensembles.
All community members are invited to attend.
"We'll celebrate the past and celebrate the future," says Hardcastle.
For more information on St. Andrew's United Church's centennial events, as well as upcoming fall programs, visit www.st-andrews-united.ca.