Newcomers and old-timers at First Presbyterian Church are finding they have more in common than they could have imagined.
The church, located in the Brow of the Hill neighbourhood, is hard at work planning a celebration to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in New Westminster. Today's congregation includes folks who have been attending the church for decades and newcomers to Canada.
"If you come on a Sunday, of the folks who attend, 70 per cent have been not here more than five years," said Rev. Tim Bruneau. "Some of those 30 per cent have been here for the better part of one-half a century. There's still quite a few that have been in our church for one-half century."
When Bruneau arrived at First Presbyterian Church in 2004, the average age of the congregation members was about 72. Discussions followed with the group of elders about their vision for the congregation - whether they wanted to continue with the way things had been or they wanted to sacrifice some of the things that had been done in the past in order to reach out to different people.
"Thanks be to God, the elders and most of the congregation were open to change," he said.
That decision has led to an increased diversity among members of the congregation. The church currently has four elders, with one being from Canada and the others hailing from Ireland, Ghana and the Philippines.
At one time the congregation had a large number of people from Sudan, but it currently has a large contingent of people who have moved here from the Philippines.
"It's very refreshing to have people from different cultures coming here," Bruneau said. "In a way they have more in common with the seniors in terms of the strength of their commitment and desire to serve God."
Bruneau said some people went to church in past eras because they felt they had to attend.
"It's kind of good, from my estimation, that people are no longer going to church because they are supposed to. They are doing it because they are passionate about serving God," Bruneau said. "I don't want to take away from that era of history. That is what people did then."
In addition to increasing the size of the congregation, Bruneau believes that the influx of newcomers to the church has other benefits.
"No one feels they own the church," he said. "It is a little unsettling - where this is useful is there is room for growth."
Newcomers, said Bruneau, can quite quickly feel they are part of the congregation. While it's natural for people to congregate with their friends and peers, he said the church tries to bring people together and engage with each other at various functions.
Bruneau said the longtime members of the congregation have taken changes in stride. In addition to attracting a more diverse community, the church has also adapted some of its traditions to be more appealing to younger members.
"You've got to get with it," said Bill Steward, a longtime member of the congregation. "You've got to accept the changes."
Steward has been attending the church for 30 years, having come from Vancouver to serve as the assistant to the reverend. He attended the church's 125th anniversary and is now chairing the 150th anniversary committee that's planning two days of events that will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Presbyterian Church in New Westminster.
Activities will get underway at Emanuel Pentecostal Church (formerly St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church) on Saturday, March 10 at 10 a.m.
"We will go down to the historic site and do a little tour and some prayers," Bruneau said. "They have really respected the heritage site and kept that building amazingly oldfashioned looking. It's a beautiful thing to walk through."
An open house and an anniversary banquet are also being held at First Presbyterian Church on March 10. Local historian Archie Miller will share some reflections on the history and ministry of the church.
The anniversary celebration continues on Sunday, March 11 with special worship at the church.
"There is going to be six ministers of our past and present involved in the worship," Bruneau said. "It is pretty significant."
Rev. Dr. Kevin Livingston will be preaching and Rev. Dr. Cal Chambers, Rev. David Smith, Rev. Dr. Ted Siverns, Rev. Desmond McConaghy and Bruneau will lead in worship and in the celebration of Holy Communion. The worship will be followed by an anniversary lunch; an anniversary musical being held that evening will wrap up the anniversary festivities.
"We are letting people know what is going on and encouraging them to connect back to the church," Bruneau said. "It's good to say, you're welcome back again if you are still in the area, or just come visit."
Archie and Dale Miller of A Sense of History Research Services have written a historical overview of the Presbyterian Church in New Westminster. Their research indicates that Rev. Robert Jamieson came to British Columbia under the auspices of the Canada Presbyterian Church and organized a church in New Westminster in March 1862.
"Presbyterians met and worshipped in these various venues until 1863 when, just in time for Christmas of that year, they opened a church of their own," wrote the Millers. "The church was on Carnarvon Street, near the manse that had been erected much earlier. This first Presbyterian church in the Royal City still stands today, one of the city's oldest buildings. Today, the building that was the first Presbyterian church of 1863 stands next to the new church of 1889, serving as a church hall for what is now Emmanuel Pentecostal. Both structures, prominent and colourful heritage buildings in the city, were originally called St. Andrews."
Jamieson would go on to start other Presbyterian churches in B.C., including Nanaimo. While based in New Westminster, he preached in other communities.
"He would preach here in the morning. He would (then) canoe down the Fraser to Richmond to preach," Bruneau said. "He had quite an adventurous spirit."
Bruneau considers the way the St. Andrews congregation responded to the Great Fire in September 1898 to be one of the church's highlights in New Westminster. The Presbyterians offered the use of their church to others who were impacted by the fire that tore through the downtown.
"The Baptist, the Methodist and the Anglican churches were destroyed," Bruneau said. "For that era, denomination was so important. That was incredibly Christ-like. I am proud of our history in that sense."
According to A Sense of History Research Services, the Presbyterian church had a strong presence in the uptown area in the early 1900s, in the form of St. Stephen's Church, which was located at the corner of Seventh Street and Fourth Avenue. In the late 1940s, the Presbyterians had Knox Church in Sapperton, St. Aidan's in the West End, as well as the amalgamation of the St. Andrews and St. Stephens' congregations into First Presbyterian Church.
First Presbyterian Church's congregation peaked in 1971/72, when it had 568 members. Some of the residents who attended its predecessors of St. Stephens and St. Andrews have been with the church for decades, including a woman who sang in the choir for 75 years until her recent move into a care home.
For more about First Presbyterian Church, visit www.firstchurchnw.ca.