This time last year, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church volunteers would be in the midst of preparing for their annual Strawberry Festival.
Festival chair Julie Hunter says by now, there would have been several meetings of the planning committee. Strawberries, barbecue favourites, beverages, yogurt, short cakes, ice cream, and crepes would have all been ordered, and books, collectables and antiques would have been gathered to sell.
The jam committee would have been busy producing jams, mustard and peach and pepper relish. The talented local entertainers would have been booked and confirmed for show time, and “the congregation would be praying for good weather, and a day filled with community fellowship.”
The Strawberry Festival has been “a well-oiled machine” for more than 35 years, “and it feels very strange not to be planning or preparing this spring.”
The event provided an opportunity for residents to “gather and enjoy the harvest, local talent and each other. It also attracts and welcomes many tourists as they join us in this celebration as well,” says Hunter.
Its cancellation due to the pandemic will have a significant impact on church finances, she says.
The festival is a primary fundraiser for St. Andrew’s, and generates about $35,000 to $38,000 in revenue each year, which helps fund the general maintenance and expensive upkeep of St. Andrew’s three historic buildings — the church, church hall and manse.
“We like to make sure, since the community supports us, that we keep everything in shape for the community to enjoy.”
Outreach and other church programs are funded from a separate budget, and so far, those are not endangered, says Hunter. “At least we’re hoping not — at this point we don’t know how long this will go on.”
One benefit to come from the physical closure of the church, she says, is that when services became available online, rather than just an audio version for those shut-ins who were not able to attend, they were able to watch and feel a part of the service.
Also moving forward with technology, the Sunday offerings can be made by e-transfer, which will help with continuing to finance church programs.
Without the strawberry festival money, some improvements may have to wait, but several projects have been completed in recent years to keep the buildings in good repair, said Hunter.
“St. Andrew’s appreciates all the past support we have received from our community and tourism for the Festival and look forward to next year, whatever that may look like. In the meantime, we ask that our generous NOTL community keeps supporting our local retailers, growers, and first responders,” says Hunter.
From a revenue side, this is expected to be a “pretty dismal” year for most local churches.
Updating the situation of Niagara-on-the-Lake churches, Coun. Gary Burroughs says they have “a drastic year ahead as far as finances are concerned.”
Churches are closed, and “unfortunate financial issues are coming up,” he said.
The St. Andrew’s Strawberry Festival in June, the July Cherry Festival at St. Mark’s in July and St. Vincent De Paul’s August Peach Festival have all been cancelled, as have some of the music events that use local churches for concert venues, such as Bravo Niagara! and Music Niagara. Also, weddings, which add to church revenues, have been postponed.
In the Anglican church, Burroughs said, “we’re working with the diocese to see what kind of funding is possible.”
As a long-time member of St. Mark’s, although Burroughs can speak of the Anglican church’s handling of the COVID-19 shut-down of services, and the cancellation of major fundraisers, he stresses the focus is on doing what churches do best — looking after the well-being of parishioners.
“I’m pretty sure all churches are doing pretty much the same thing,” he said.
St. Mark’s is sending a weekly email, News to the Pews, to all parishioners giving updates on where they can get help if they need it, and the same information is mailed every week to those who don’t have email.
A group at St. Mark’s, called the Calling and Caring team, continues to make calls to each parishioner every week to see how they’re doing, and if they need anything, he added.
St. Mark’s has a new interim minister, Peter Wall, for four months as the church transitions to a permanent replacement. It remains closed, with livestreamed services on Wednesday and Sunday.
“The church is looking beautiful, as volunteers, self-distancing, continue to clean up so that when we are able to open, we will be ready.”
St. Mark’s is asking its parishioners to donate to Newark Neighbours to help in their outreach, he said.
Terry Choules, co-chair of the mid-August St. Vincent de Paul Peach Festival for the last five years, says he and his wife were quarantined after a return home from Portugal when the festival committee members began discussing cancelling the 33rd annual event.
At that time, the Olympic Games, to be held late in July, had been cancelled, and it was becoming obvious that the pandemic would not be over any time soon. “Little by little, things were closing,” he says, and it soon became obvious that even if events re-opened, there would be a need for physical distancing, which would not have been possible for the organizing of the festival or the event itself.
“We have a lot of visitors, and it would be too close quarters. And most of the people working on it are seniors. We didn’t want to take a chance on anyone getting sick.”
Two of the staples, and money-makers for the fund-raising event, are the old books and white elephant sales. They especially posed a problem because this is the time when the items for those sales would be donated and sorted, and it was not a good idea to have people touching them.
“Some activities had already been arranged and had to be cancelled, but everyone was really understanding. Ours is the third church event of the season, and the others were already cancelled. So much of the planning and the preparation is done in the time building up to the festival, and we really didn’t want to take any chances.”
The funds raised, usually about $15,000, have always gone to maintenance and repairs on the Davy Street church hall, says Choules. This year, there were going to be some improvements to the driveway, and there may be enough money left over from past years to go ahead with it, or it may have to wait. The committee hasn’t had that discussion, and will when it’s safe for them to meet again.
The bigger disappointment is having to cancel an event that was well-liked by the community, and also popular with visitors, who would plan their annual trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake to coincide with the Peach Festival.
“We have a lot of people who look forward to it. There are buses that come from the States, but we don’t know about the border closures. And the Town has all its facilities closed until the end of June. We couldn’t wait until July to make a decision.”
Like all churches, St. Vincent is closed completely. Those who want to participate in mass doing it online from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Catharines, says Choules. It livestreams masses on YouTube seven days a week at various times.
The Niagara United Mennonite Church hasn’t had its spring fair for a few years, said youth Pastor Chris Hutton — instead, last year it decided to have a pot luck picnic in front of the church. It was intended as a gathering for families, friends, and passers-by — anyone who wanted to stop for a bite to eat was welcome, and they had a “really good turnout.” There was no charge for food or kids’ face painting — it was a “gift to the community,” not a fundraiser, but some people left donations, he said.
Instead, this spring, says Hutton, “I took a page out of the playbook for the province of British Columbia, and we’re organizing an event for our church called The Big At-Home Picnic. After our service online, we’re inviting people to picnic inside or outside of their home, and then post those pics on Facebook or Instagram. We’re also doing a live video on our Facebook page that people can watch during the picnic, that will have people from our church sharing and playing some songs for people to enjoy.”
The church is also putting community recipes together for people to experiment with on the day of the picnic, he says. “We’re pretty excited about it.”
The church has been pushed by the pandemic to move forward with technology, and is able to offer services, meetings and activities for youth online that parishioners can participate in, using Zoom, “which way surpasses what can be done on YouTube,” he says.
“People can gather, watch, pray, and chat together. It’s a great way for people to gather.”
It’s something they had talked about doing for the future, but when COVID-19 closed the church, “we had to learn very quickly.”
Hutton said the church is trying to find a balance between reaching seniors who are not ready to embrace technology, and the young people who see it as the way of the future.
“The reality is this is how people are going to engage in communicating,” he says. If the church ignores it, he adds, “we face the prospect of being irrelevant.”
They are being challenged, he says, to provide for the needs of the seniors and the “delicate balance” of seeing the future and not ignoring the younger generation.
The church “is being proactive rather than reactive, saying ‘here’s what we need to do, now how can we do it?”
And in the process, the youth pastor has discovered, young people who are helping to develop the technology “like the challenge of including the seniors.”
When they’re given the ability to express themselves, they gravitate toward inclusivity, he says.
And with the arrival of COVID-19, they are embracing technology that will “cast a wide net” with their parishioners.
“Life is still happening,” he adds.