Churchill 2011

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(“Clergy Supply” in Churchill, Manitoba — Part Two)

Life begins... in the Far North



April 18, 2011

The view from my living room window is spectacular.   Barren rock, the setting April sun glinting on a pile of snow, and beyond it the endless white of ice-covered Hudson Bay.

There was a mini-blizzard much of the day today.  And, a lady to whom I spoke at the hospital said that a polar bear with two cubs was seen along the shore.  That certainly caught my attention, because only yesterday I was walking quite a distance along that very shore – alone, without a gun, confident that bears don’t come onto the land at this time of year.  I think I had better be more careful.

It’s been five days since I arrived in Churchill, Manitoba.

I left home on a warm spring morning
, and after the usual airport security screening I walked across the tarmac to a 30 passenger turboprop aircraft, and in due course was flying north.  It was absolutely mesmerising to look out the window and see, first, the miles of flooded Manitoba farmland with the village of Peguis almost underwater, then increasing amounts of snow cover, then less and less open water on lakes and rivers, then no open water at all, and finally the frigid endless miles of boreal forest and tundra.

Although there were two professional flight attendants on board, who saw to the safety and comfort of their passengers just as their counterparts do on the major airlines, we were quite clearly on a long-distance far north carrier.  There was, for example, a bulkhead halfway down the cabin, and when one of the flight attendants opened the door to take some refreshments to the pilots, I could see that forward of this bulkhead was a space entirely devoted to freight.  As well, the flight attendants’ uniforms are padded for extra warmth.

It was -22°C when I got off the plane, and a windchill of -30°C (that’s 22 degrees below zero to the Farenheit crowd).  Pretty good for April 14th, don’t you think?  But the sun was brilliant, the sky a dense blue, and with the flat terrain the horizon was virtually limitless.  I thought it was wonderful.

People from the congregation met me at the airport and took me to the place where I am to live, next door to the church.  They showed me around, gave me the keys, and left me to settle in.  The place is well-built, spotlessly clean, spacious, and very comfortable.

First impressions
St.Paul’s church and rectory
St. Paul’s Church & Rectory
my home and office for 30 days
My adventure in the north got off to a very quiet and gentle start.  The day I arrived, Patricia Penwarden, the woman who met me at the airport and the chief lay official of the parish, came back in the afternoon to give me a tour of church and the town.  She showed me the bank, the post office, the library, and the Northern Stores outlet where I can get groceries and supplies.  She also took me into the hospital which doubles as Churchill’s personal care home.  I met staff, and some of the permanent residents, then made arrangements to lead a worship service for them.

But that was the last I was to see of my guide.  Right after introducing me to the place, Patricia left Churchill for a week, on her way to a family wedding in southern Manitoba.

There followed a couple of very quiet days, that felt much like a spiritual retreat – with lots of chance for prayer, reflection, and writing.  Naturally, I also got connected to the Internet as soon as I could.  But I spent a couple of hours each day outside as well, walking and exploring.

On my first such outing, camera in hand, I found walking to be far more treacherous than I had expected.  Evidently there was an intense thaw here, about a week ago, followed by a return to deep freeze, with the result that there are extensive patches of ice everywhere.  I fell down once (not badly – ending up on one knee and one hand) and several other times I did some mighty fine dancing.  But I soon got the hang of it, and managed to take quite a few photos.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and that was when I met the rest of my congregation.  It was a little unsettling, being a total stranger to everyone and yet leading them in what was supposed to be the familiar pattern of their weekly worship.
St.Paul’s church interior
St. Paul’s Church interior
the worshippers in these seats are to be led by a total stranger?

But really this oddity was itself quite familiar – familiar to them, at any rate!  Churchill is a town where almost all the professional people come for a short while, and then go.  I was visiting at the hospital today and met a young doctor who was on her last day of duty up here.  Another doctor would take over this evening.  Then there was the friend of mine from Winnipeg, who met me for coffee on Thursday night: he’s a dentist, and was just winding up a two week stint in Churchill’s dental clinic.  So, for the people of St. Paul’s Churchill, it really wasn’t all that odd to have a total stranger, who is here for only a short time, leading them in their regular Sunday worship.

Even yesterday’s organist was an outsider!  Although Pat Penwarden usually plays for church services, when she knew that she had to be away this weekend she invited a young woman to fill in who is only in Churchill for a year.  Claudia is from Austria, and is a PhD student studying the sociology of human interaction with the northern environment.

And so it was that a visiting priest from Winnipeg, and a visiting organist from Austria, together led the Palm Sunday worship for the local people of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, in Churchill.

The most important aspect of any priest’s life is the people.  It occurred to me today that a priest is like a spiritual flight attendant – seeing to the safety and spiritual comfort of a small plane-load of humanity.  But the details of this journey – fascinating though they may be – really must not be put into an online blog.

I have begun to meet my passengers, and I shall be absorbed with them for the next thirty days.  But to be appropriately faithful to my calling, I can really only tell you about the cold, and the bright bright sun, about the ravens that are as big as turkeys, and the limitless flat expanse of Hudson Bay.

Oh yes, and if I have an adventure, such as meeting that polar bear and her cubs, I will certainly post it here... if I live to tell the tale!

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