The Church of the Past
The year was 2016. My wife and I were taking a drive in the country with no particular destination in mind, open to anything that we might find and explore. But, as we would suspect sometime later, perhaps there was more to it than mere travellers' whim. Perhaps the word 'destination' contains the word 'destiny'.
We had driven down country roads for about half an hour when we saw something that caught our interest. The little church stood proudly at the southwest corner of the crossroads of the village of Everette. It had probably been there before any of the buildings now surrounding it. And it was for sale, with “a new price,” so there would not have been much interest so far in buying the place. That was sad somehow when you think that in that church important life stages of generations--baptisms, weddings, and funerals-- were ceremonially blessed.
For some reason that seemed stronger than mere curiosity, we were drawn to this old church. It didn’t even have what I would call a proper paved parking lot – just the grassless ground and gravel behind it, between it and a black-painted barn..
After we walked over to look at the front of the church, we saw a big 1906 engraved in white in the lower right corner. It was a century building and then some. We then went around to the back to see whether there were any burial grounds attached to it. We thought that we could learn something of the history of the church, its parishioners and of the village from the names and dates in the graveyard. We had done this before. Graveyards had always proved interesting to us. They had told stories of babies lost, but also of long term relationships, and family continuity in the same area.
But surprisingly there were no graves apparent anywhere on church property. Were there buildings now where a small cemetery once had been? There wasn’t a plaque with that message anywhere around. Perhaps members of this church had been laid to rest in a part of the large cemetery surrounding the tall, majestic, and well-kept Anglican church situated about 100 metres south and across the road east from where we were then standing.
We could tell that it had been some time since the building beside us had functioned as an active church. Written in large letters on the side of the church facing away from the road were the printed works of teenage lovers: “Tasha Loves Lee 4 Ever”, “Louise”, then a big heart then “Joe,” then “First comes love, then comes marriage – George and Nancy”. We wondered whether they ever married, as it had been awhile since the words were scribed on the church. For dates were written after a few of the declarations of teenage love: 1987, 1989 and 1990. There was nothing more recent than that. One short generation of graffiti lovers had gone on, not to be replaced by those that followed them in school.
As we focused our attention upon the large black barn behind the church, wondering why it was there, we heard a shuffling of barely lifted feet behind us. An old man dressed in ancient attire (both in style and in wear) was moving slowly our way. He clearly wanted to talk to us. Determination moved his legs.
“This used to be a real going concern as a church in its day,” he said. “You had to get here a little early on a Sunday morning or you would have to sit or stand in the back. And that made you a prime target of the auld minister’s scorn and commentary. I was subject to both”
He had a slight Scottish burr in his speech, so we reckoned that this might be an old Presbyterian church, and he its oldest living member.
“But when the English came to the area with their high church religious ways (he aimed a damning glance at the Anglican church to the south), and no more good Scots settlers came homesteading, the church just slowly died out. I think I may have been the last of its true flock.
Being partially of Scottish descent myself, three generations away from the homeland, I felt some understanding and sympathy for what he was saying.
I was quick to ask “Where then are the parishioners buried? There is no cemetery on the grounds that we can see. And we don’t think that they are in the barn behind us.”
“We’re buried over there with the English, by the Anglican church, in a wee corner of our own that they graciously granted to us some years back. Nae flowers adorn the stones of we Scots settlers. Nae flowers at all.”
He surprised us with the next words that he said. “I ken that one of you is of Scots descent. Maybe you should buy this old place.” He pointed to the church. “It would be good to have a good Scots lad or lass come to our wee village and take over our kirk.” The more he spoke the more his words took on a Scottish brogue. I had no good idea how he knew that I was of Scots ancestry. I wasn’t wearing the Brodie tartan of my ancestors, and neither of us had eaten haggis since our last celebration of Robbie Burns Day at our local British pub some weeks back. Still it was clear that he was absolutely certain about it.
I introduced us to him as John and Fiona. He smiled as he heard my wife’s name, calling it “a name bonnie for a lass to have . And you’re a bonnie lass as well.” My Fiona smiled. He informed us then that his name was Maclean, Shamus Maclean. And that he had a sister named Fiona, who had married a Maclean of another lineage. I walked up to him and went to shake his hand, but strangely, he shook his head in response. He had seemed so friendly in other ways. Maybe that was just not his personal custom.
“If you want to look around inside, I know a way into the kirk not generally known these days.” He took us to a well-hidden side door, invisible to the casual eye because of the small trees that had grown up beside the church covering much of the wall. He directed me to the doorknob and told me to lift it before I gave it a turn, “else it willnae open.” With a grab and a grunt, I accomplished the task. The door came loose and swung open with a creak like in the scary part of an old movie when the villain is sneaking up on the heroes or maybe just one doomed heroine, their being unaware of their peril until too late. I wondered what would lay ahead of us as we entered the church.
He walked up front to the pulpit and looked down upon us as if he was about to deliver a scathing sermon on the sins of the human race, ours in particular. “The minister of the place was a Maclean himself, Jock Maclean, a relative not distant enough. He would torch our minds with hot words bearing fire and brimstone, the old Calvinist that he was. He would stare at we bairns, particularly my sister and me/ Then he would made bloody sure (if you don’t mind the word ‘bloody' spoken in a church) that we knew of the terrors of hellfire and damnation if we acted up at the back of the kirk, where we invariably were, and as we invariably did (the repeated word with a particularly long -rrr- to it).”
Putting a dour expression on his face, Shamus pointed at various locations at the back of the church, and said, “I’m talking about you, and you, and you, you shiftless, conniving creatures. There’s no hiding from the all-seeing eyes of God you back-sliding bairns of Beelzebub.”
Despite our being in a church, we had to laugh at his obviously well-practiced imitation of the fire-breathing preacher. Our laughter continued when he walked to the back of the church and uttered the whispered comments made in response by the “back-sliding bairns” that included himself, his sister, and his buddies of long ago. He made the whole scene easy to picture in our minds. We thoroughly enjoyed his performance. He had a gift as a storyteller to be sure. Then, with a beckoning of his hand, he led us back outside of the church through the side door. “I can’t stay long. I only have so much time to visit. It was good to meet you two, and to get to show you what life was like in this church when it was a living part of the community. Think about buying the kirk. It would be appreciated by those of us that came here before you.”
He moved swiftly away, as if chased by the hellfire that he spoke of. We soon lost sight of him. We then headed over to the cemetery across the road to the Anglican side. We soon discovered the Scots corner. As he had said, there were “nae flowers” placed beside any of the stones. We promised ourselves that when we came back, we would change that situation.
Fiona spotted the name Maclean on one of the gravestones. She saw her own name right before it. It was the grave of a Fiona MacLean. Walking to her stone led us to other Macleans. We were soon in for a shock, as we looked at two of the gravestones. The first we came across was the grave of Jock Maclean, 1845 – 1927, “Minister of this Parish”. The next hit us harder. It read “Shamus Maclean, born in 1899 in Scotland died in 1976 in Everette.” We knew for sure that we would bring flowers the next time we came to the village and place them in abundance in front of the stones of both Fiona and Shamus, perhaps Jock as well, as he had indirectly given us quite a laugh. And maybe we would put in an offer in on this church of the past. Who knows what we would do with it?