The new rector of St. Mark’s Church is “slowly but surely” settling in at the rectory, and cautiously doing what he can to meet members of the church community during the challenging time of a pandemic.
Rev. Leighton Lee started at St. Mark’s on June 1, having arrived from Alberta, where he was rector of the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer in downtown Calgary, and dean of the Calgary diocese.
The move has been “quite daunting,” but the work is getting done, he says, while relaxing on the back porch of the Byron Street rectory, a “huge, formidable space” for one man to rattle around in.
He’s surrounded himself with his beloved antiques — collecting them is one of his passions — in a space that, while large, he admits “is a better fit for all of my stuff, and it’s fun to be in a place that’s old, historic and filled with character.”
Lee, 48, says he was familiar with Niagara-on-the-Lake, but just as a visitor, when he was considering the move.
His first experience in NOTL was visiting a musician who had been his cello teacher in school, and remained a friend who later moved to town. When he reconnected with her recently, she reminded him of a lunch they’d had with Bob Wright, the long-time minister of St. Mark’s who retired and moved from the area in 2015.
Although since then Lee’s only visited the area a few times, “it seems a town of wonderful, eccentric people — and I don’t mean that disparagingly, I’m eccentric too. It’s full of colourful and interesting people, in a place steeped in history. It’s a good fit for me.”
In addition to getting used to the rectory, he’s learning about the downtown of NOTL on weekends during the tourism season. The intersection at King and Queen Streets is to be avoided, he’s discovered, and he doesn’t understand why horse-drawn carriages are being protested, when it seems the horses are perfectly safe on the Old Town streets.
He was drawn to take the position at St. Mark’s because he was ready for something new. He’d been feeling he’d done all he could do in Calgary, and didn’t want to just tread water — that’s not healthy, he added. And life was drawing him east. “I always envisioned myself coming back to this part of the world, and this isn’t a bad place to be. It has a great, healthy parish, it’s a place with marvellous history, and it’s a fantastic town. It was a place I would resonate with, with people that would resonate with me.”
He thinks his theological view and world view will be a good fit with the St. Mark’s community, he says. “It’s difficult to explain, but it feels right. I get a good feeling.”
He learned years ago, during that first visit to NOTL, about the acoustics in St. Mark’s and its hosting of an annual music festival, and admits that music is his passion. “I’m a huge music lover,” he says, “especially of really good sacred music,” but also of music in general. Lee says he can’t wait until it can once again be part of the church, giving the church one more avenue to be part of the community.
Lee’s interest in expanding St. Mark’s community engagement is one of the reasons he was a good candidate for the position of rector, says parishioner Gary Zalepa, who was part of the selection committee. While it’s the Anglican diocese and Bishop that ultimately make the decision, he and two other parishioners were involved in the process.
Although the Rev. William Roberts left early in 2020, the church waited until last fall to begin the search for his replacement, with two interim pastors serving the parish for the last 16 months. COVID was not a great time to interview people, or to look for someone who was interested in moving, says Zalepa. “We were in a pandemic, so we put a break on things. We were worried about availability, and people who wouldn’t be able to make a move. We decided to wait until things seemed more back on track. In the meantime we had two experienced and excellent interim pastors, Lynne Marchant and then Peter Wall. And we’re lucky to have such great volunteers, who have been really engaged with our parishioners. They really reached out, making phone calls, supporting the community and connecting with the community.”
The pandemic demonstrated the need for engaging the community in other ways, and reaffirming the role of St. Mark’s in town, he says. The church is now in a good position to grow that role, and getting people interested in the church, when there are so many other organizations, is a challenge.
“That isn’t just about growing the number of parishioners on a list, it’s about engaging people who are not on the list, who are members of the community at large,” says Zalepa. “We’re looking at ways to engage the community in a meaningful way.”
Lee, he says, seems the perfect person for the position of rector, with his determination that a church should be about much more than opening for a few hours on Sunday mornings. It’s crucial, he says, for churches to serve other functions in their communities.
One of his hopes, is the continuation and even expansion of music and other outreach programs at St. Mark’s. Music is Lee’s passion, but so, he explains, is growing the role of the church in the community. The church, he says, “can bring people together for all kinds of reasons.”
He and St. Mark’s parishioners are struggling with the church closure due to COVID and not being able to meet in person, but “Zoom has become a wonderful tool,” as have backyards, the church grounds and even the cemetery, where a small number of people can meet, masked, physical distancing and obeying all the restrictions, he says.
“We’ve had various Zoom meetings, but we’re certainly looking forward to a celebration in the fall. So we all need to be good, play our part, get vaccinated and don’t blow it,” he cautions.
Because what he is most looking forward to is having people back in church, where they can interact and participate in Sunday services. “I can’t wait to get back in there. We all can’t wait.”
Lee is a graduate of the University of Calgary with a bachelor’s degree in art history, and of general theological seminary in New York, where he earned his master of divinity degree. He was ordained deacon and priest in the Diocese of Calgary in 2003.