A heart that has a beat for 100 years;
A rhythm with a firm foundation
an essay by Darren Takenaka in celebrating Central’s 100 year anniversary (written in 2005)
Put an ear to the ground for 100 years and you will hear rhythms of change.
Over time tempos quicken, relax or fade away altogether, and familiar beats are lost, and replaced by new ones. A buffalo herd rumbles past and is gone, supplanted by a chanting locomotive. Galloping hoof beats recede before the droning rush of rubber tires over pavement.
Other rhythms stay relatively constant, of course. The noise of rivers; the patter of rain; heartbeats. Central United Church in Calgary has been rooted to the same downtown corner for a century, all the while absorbing the sounds around it. Demographics have shifted, technology has advanced and the city’s music has changed. Somehow, Central has kept dancing.
One way to stay on the beat is to anticipate the flipping of the record – to know when the hiccups are coming, and to expertly glide through them. For a church in the modern era, that’s extremely difficult. Another way is to only dance when the rhythm suits you. For a church determined to be relevant and real to anyone who needs it, that’s not an option. A third way is to dance to a rhythm that comes from within. To have a pulse so steadfast it can gracefully waltz through a violent tango. The kind of rhythm, fundamental and versatile in the same breath, is not so much a skill to be learned as a God-given gift, present from birth; a rhythm with a firm foundation.
In 1875, John McDougall would have been well acquainted with two rhythms in particular; the cadence of the King James Bible, he preached from, and the roll of the saddle. The son of a Methodist missionary George McDougall, John continued his father’s work among Native Americans, pioneers and policemen on the Canadian frontier. He established a mission at Morley and from there traveled a circuit of ministry including Fort McLeod and Fort Calgary.
Tradition hold that it was in the winter of 1875 the McDougall led Calgary’s first Methodist service. The humble sanctuary was the local North West Mounted Police barracks. It was a mustard seed of a beginning. The congregation that would eventually become Central United Church started as a tiny group of Christians meeting in a borrowed space on the frontier of a cold land.
Over the course of thirty years and the tenure of several ministers, the congregation would nurse a wonderfully stubborn habit for outgrowing buildings. A general store, a hospital building, and a series of makeshift churches could not contain them. By the turn of the century, plans were being made to erect a new, more permanent home.
In 1903, a young redheaded reverend named George Kerby was invited to the pastor who would oversee the building of the new church. Kerby brought with him the rhythmic sensibilities of an orator born, the braces view of an unfettered thinker, and the compassion of a resolute Christian. He also brought a reputation for filling pews. His gift for drawing a crowd would be put to good use, as the new church was planned as both a response to and a mandate for, growth. When it was completed in 1905, it was the largest structure in Calgary, boasting a seating capacity of 1,975.
Richard Bedford (R.B.) Bennett, a church going MLA and future Prime Minister, helped choose the plot of land on the corner of Seventh Avenue and First Street SW. It seems Bennett strongly believed in securing a foothold for God in the city’s core. During his lifetime, he would successfully oppose several calls for relocation.
Those who attended the dedication of Central Methodist Church on February 5, 1905 sat in new pews or stood on new flooring (the church was filled to overflowing), admiring the craftsmanship.
The walls have been made of sandstone hewn from local quarries. The sanctuary was paneled in antique wood and walnut. A Calgary Herald article declared “of all the churches in Canada today, there are none more complete or handsome.” Eleven years later, the church’s celebrated interior was consumed by flame.
On February 29, 1916, a boiler room accident turned the building into a giant stone furnace. While no one was harmed in the blaze, the sanctuary was left a vessel of ash and ruins. It was a shock and a major financial setback, but the congregation stayed on beat. A pair of theatres was rented as interim churches, and just over a year later, Central opened its refurbished doors.
Countless stories would unfold behind those doors as the decades passed and new songs rose up.
The ominous beat of a march would weave its way into the building as literal Christian soldiers were called to serve in two world wars. In response to WWI and WWII, nearly 500 members and adherents from Central enlisted to aid the cause of freedom.
Wedding marches offered a happy contrast to those of the military, though sometimes the songs mixed; one former Central minister recalls having once performed 18 weddings in a single day during wartime. Many happy unions have been sanctified beneath Central’s dome and many handfuls of rice tossed across its stairs.
In 1925, one particularly special union took place when the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches came together to form the United Church of Canada. Three hearts beating for God synchronized into one, and Central United garnered the name it bears today.
In the 1930’s the dirge of the Great Depression wafted in, but plucky members refused to drag their economic slump, with donations of time, clothing and money.
Such benevolence was characteristic of the church. While some degree of charity is to be expected from anybody of faith, an early, challenging precedent had been set for Central in the sermonizing of George Kerby.
“The deadest man in God’s world is the one who shuts his eyes so he cannot see the tattered garments of the poor,” he said. “God save you and me from being mean and small in our charities.” George Kerby
After the one-two punch of the Depression and WWII had taken its toll on spirits, Central stood ready to offer them hope.
The post war era was a heady time for Central. Drawn by spiritual hunger and the gifted preaching of Rev. Andrew Lawson and his successor Rev. Gerald Switzer, Calgarians packed the pews and Sunday School classrooms.
For a time, Central boasted the largest congregation in the United Church of Canada, at 3,500 strong. A series of renovations was necessary to accommodate the crowds, including the addition of a new wing in 1947. By the dawn of the sixties however, growth had reached it apex and lean years were ahead.
While Central had been growing, so had the city around it. Downtown had become a commercial centre, pushing residents into the suburban homes and churches . The cynicism of the era likely played a role in shrinking the church’s membership lists as well.
By the early 1980’s the situation was desperate. Membership and finances had dwindled horrendously. While there were still occasions for joy, Central seemed to be falling out of step. Some of the members believed in the prudence of capitalizing on a soaring real estate market. Others refused to abandon a building they cherished. Tension mounted, then lingered after the recession brought property values down, nullifying the debate. By coincidence of providence, Central would stand its ground.
Following those challenging times and their aftermath, rejuvenation took place. Starting in the early 1990’s, led by Pastor Michael Ward; Central opened its doors wider than ever before in its history. External priorities would remedy internal dysfunction. Vulnerability and faith would counter tension and doubt.
Gamblers, drunks, and drug addicts, long acquainted with the building’s outer walls, found themselves welcomed inside. Recovery ministries sprang up with fervor. Initiatives were launched to feed and clothe the needy, and to shelter the homeless, meeting with many triumphs, Central’s role in the creation of CUPS (Calgary Urban Project Society) in the late 1980’s and the “Inn From the Cold Society” being prime examples.
The building became an obliging host and an enthusiastic spring board for social outreach in the name of Jesus Christ. Membership rose sharply. It was observed by many that true to its roots in John McDougall’s missionary work Central had returned to the business of giving God’s love away.
This year Central United is celebrating 100 years from the day it was dedicated. The building looks its age; paint peeling here, wood wearing there. It does not, however, sound its age. The voice of the church is not that of a doddering, fast-fading relic; enthusiastic testimonies of victory over addiction are given. New declarations of faith are whispered or shouted. Songs of praise are sung with joy. The songs being sung with be replaced over time, of course. So will the various sounds of the city. Rhythms change, after all. What does not change is that as long as Central continues to follow the beat of a different drummer, it will dance on.