When the first sermon was preached and the opening hymns sang at St. James Elmira Lutheran Church’s new sanctuary on Arthur Street in downtown Elmira, Canadian soldiers were fighting the Great War at the Battle of Ypres, women had yet to win the right to vote and the service was given in German.
Some 1,000 people celebrated the dedication at 60 Arthur St. S. on May 5, 1915, which saw the growing congregation move into the church that it continues to use today.
Many things have changed since the church opened its doors a century ago, but for Pastor Hans Borch, much remains the same.
“In many ways, over the 100 years the church has been here at this location and indeed, the 165 years the congregation has been active, the church has not changed,” he said. “We’re still here providing that relationship between God and humanity and allowing people the opportunity to see how God interacts with us and how we can interact with God and the rest of the world.”
Its roots began in 1850 when the North Woolwich Evangelical Lutheran Congregation purchased the parcel of land that has remained the church’s home for 11 pounds and five shillings (less than $25 dollars) and built what was little more than a log cabin for worship.
By October of 1868, the group had outgrown the humble space and made plans to construct a brick church on the property. Their second home, a small white brick church that sat just south of the existing building was completed in December of the following year.
As Elmira grew from a village consisting of just a few clusters of homes and a post office, into a town with emerging employment opportunities in nearby factories, so too did the congregation’s numbers.
In the early days, the membership was almost exclusively made up of German immigrants, Borch said.
“The Lutheran Church was very much a German community church and it provided members of the German community a place to come together and worship together in their own language. And so right on through 1914-15 services were primarily spoken in German and teaching was primarily done in German in confirmation class and things like that. English services weren’t added here until 1917, which was fairly early for a lot of Lutheran Churches.”
Around the start of the First World War, the congregation had once again outgrown its church, and plans for a larger facility on the north end of their Arthur Street property took shape.
At a cost of some $28,000, the church was completed and a dedication ceremony was held in the spring on 1915.
“A dedication is basically the setting apart a building as a worship space and as holy ground,” Borch explained.
Some 40 years later the church’s interior underwent significant renovations, including the addition of a centre aisle and new flooring.
And finally, in the mid-1960s, the church expanded for a final time as the fellowship hall and the education wing were added, at a cost of approximately $120,000.
By and large, the church has retained the character and style of when it was first opened. And there are both pros and cons to working with a 100-year-old building, explained Borch, previously a civil engineer for 23 years with the Canadian Forces prior to becoming a pastor.
“Of course the history of the church itself is very special to us, and the building itself certainly plays a big role in that. However, there are additional issues that come with a 100 year-old building in terms of maintenance costs.”
With declining membership numbers, St. James, like so many churches across the province and the country, is facing financial challenges.
If the congregation is going to last another 100 years, it’s going to need to find ways to stay relevant to young people, Borch said.
“I think St. James is suffering what a lot of mainline churches are going through. If you take a look at society as a whole, fewer people are attending churches on a regular basis. I think it’s down to 15 per cent now of the population that attends on a regular basis, which is a stark contrast to a number of years ago when it was 40 per cent. That’s a big change, and I think a lot of churches are impacted by that. And I certainly see that within our church as well.”
He continued, “We have a number of members of our congregation that are in the older age bracket and of course, as time goes on, that number dwindles, because they are dying off. Fortunately here at St. James we also have fairly big number of young people and families that are involved with our congregation.”
To strengthen that trend, St. James will continue to look for new ways to keep its congregation engaged, while also reaching out to the larger community in Elmira and Woolwich Township, Borch said.
The church will host a special service to celebrate the 100th anniversary on May 24 at 3 p.m. Bishop Michael Pryse will be giving a sermon, and an expanded choir will perform.