by Barry Stephenson
Highgate United Church, located in Highgate, Ontario, was deconsecrated in June, 2010. In the months preceding the deconsecration service, I travelled to Highgate with my colleague Ron Grimes, to meet with church and community members about the closing and hear about the efforts to save and transform the church into a heritage and performance venue. Our initial visit turned into a series of visits, during which we used digital video to record conversations, liturgical rites, and cultural performances. The work eventuated in my participating in a heritage conference held at the church, and the production of two films, dealing with the emotions and drama surrounding on the closing and transformation of the church into the Mary Webb Centre. The work also produced a photographic study of the church.
Several months after the deconsecration service, Ron Grimes and I returned to Highgate, where we screened the films to former congregation members. The following article was published in the Chatham-Kent Daily Post:
A video based on the deconsecration and anticipated transformation of the Highgate United Church was premiered to about 40 members of the congregation on Sunday afternoon. Parts of the film have already been shown to researchers in Wales and Norway. Grimes and Stephenson hope to extend their research to other areas of the world since regions from Japan to the Czech Republic are also dealing with the closing of large numbers of places of worship. Wilfrid Laurier University religious studies researchers Dr. Ron Grimes and Dr. Barry Stephenson began work on the project last spring, interviewing long time members of the Highgate church and community. They also recorded the exhibition of photography by Fanshawe College students and the inaugural concert – a rousing evening with Stratford-based Celtic band Rant Maggie Rant – in the church. Dr. Grimes explained that the project has evolved into two films: one by him entitled The Deconsecration of a Canadian Church; the second by Stephenson entitled The Transformation of a Canadian Church. Together they tell the story of the transition from the 1898 rare round church in a thriving farming community to the building now known as The Mary Webb Centre, a cultural and community centre in a village now reduced to a population of about 400. The original intent of the videos was to create a teaching tool. As the project evolved, Grimes and Stephenson realised that they were also capturing a record of a moment in time which would have ongoing historical significance. In addition, the film could have a pastoral use, helping other congregations whose churches were being closed to move forward. Highgate viewers of the film agreed that seeing it was part of their healing process. Personal stories and expressions of raw emotion were braided with the deconsecration service. What struck those viewing the video was the importance not only of faith and worship but also of food and fellowship. There were also excerpts from experts at the June Ontario Heritage Conference, evaluating the church as a building while putting it in the context of the history of Ontario’s ecclesiastical buildings.It was clear at the end of the viewings that those present recognised that, while the building technically is no longer a church, it still has the potential to be the heart of the community offering food and fellowship to all who join The Mary Webb Centre events.
For a recently published article on the deconsecration of Highgate United Church, in the journal Practical Matters, click here
The project produced two films, one focusing on the deconsecration of the church, the other on its transformation into the Mary Webb Centre.
The Deconsecration of a Canadian Church, by Ronald L. Grimes
Highgate United: The Transformation of a Church, by Barry Stephenson – the film was screened at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, in 2011.