It was just over a year ago when the new rector arrived at St. Mark’s Anglican Church. Rev. Leighton Lee loved what he had learned about Niagara-on-the-Lake as a visitor: the interesting people in town, the history, the music, and the vibrant community. He was looking forward to not only meeting the parishioners but also expanding the church outreach programs — community engagement was at the top of his mind.
However, when he arrived from Alberta, where he was rector of the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer in downtown Calgary and dean of the Calgary diocese, it was mid-pandemic — a challenging time to meet a new parish with churches closed.
Last Friday, sitting on the back porch of the rectory, understandably a favourite place to relax, Lee looks back on how life has changed during the pandemic, and although there were struggles and challenges to face, at how well people have adapted to change.
Across Byron Street from the rectory, Canada Day celebrations are in full swing. But looking out on the very large backyard, with the historic church and cemetery just off to the side, and a border of trees at the rear, the voices are just a quiet murmur in the busiest part of town on the busiest day of the year. Birds are chirping their various songs, and there are glimpses of the wildlife that frequents the yard — Lee willingly shares the space with raccoons, groundhogs and other small animals, although he keeps his distance from the skunks. It is very much an oasis, perfect for peace and reflection.
His arrival in NOTL in the midst of a lockdown seems such a long time ago, he says, and as we ease into what feels like post-pandemic, “we’re all learning to manage our own feelings of risk management, and what we’re comfortable with.”
Gradually COVID measures eased over time, churches were allowed limited in-person services, and small groups could meet with masks and physical distancing. Soon, the last restriction is to be lifted, says Lee — choirs will once again be able to sing in church.
Masks are now a personal choice. “There were people who didn’t want to return to church until they didn’t have to wear a mask, and others who are still more comfortable wearing them,” he says. Services are still available virtually, but that will come to an end in September. In the meantime, he has found it a different experience meeting people without a mask for the first time, “but some how it all worked.”
He has recovered from a very mild case of COVID likely contracted at an airport breakfast during a short trip to Calgary — the worst of it being the boredom of self-isolating. He’s accustomed to living alone, but also seeing people regularly, and “as soon as you know you can’t go out, that’s when you want to.”
“It seems inevitable now that everyone will have it at some point or another,” but the feeling of shame seems to be dissipating, “and I’m glad we’re getting over that.”
He is settled at the rectory, having unpacked his antiques and placed his furniture that suits the historic building so well. And it has come to feel like home. When he returned recently from Calgary, he was pleased to feel that way — that as much as he likes to visit, NOTL and the rectory are where he belongs. He feels the same in a spiritual sense, that St. Mark’s is the place he is supposed to be, and says it seems the parishioners feel the same. He felt that when he first arrived, and he still does.
Church warden Allan Magnacca agrees Lee is in the right place at the right time.
It’s part of the history of the church, he says, that since 1792, the War of 1812, the First and Second World Wars, and the depression, “we seem to have in most cases had the right rector for the right time. I believe, and I think the parishioners would agree, that we have the right person with us at this time. There is nothing but the most positive feeling, and we look forward to some great years ahead.”
“It’s been quite lovely, actually,” says Lee, “getting to know lots of people during times that have been not so much difficult, but different, and realizing the strength of the human spirit. We are more adaptive than we thought we would be, but we didn’t really have a choice, we just made it work. There was so much that we had to re-imagine. It all feels normal now, and when the choir returns in the fall, that will be the last part of the puzzle. We have music, we have hymns, but it’s really exciting to think that church will be like it used to be. Church is church, whether you have music or not, but it’s also about familiarity and tradition — tradition is an important part of the church.”
A music lover, Lee was aware of the great acoustics in the church before he arrived, and now Music Niagara is also back at home, able to hold its concerts in the church where the festival began.
The cherished Cherry Festival that he has heard so much about, that was so badly missed, will bring not only the church community, but the broader Niagara-on-the-Lake community and visitors from further afield back to St. Mark’s for what is a very special day to all involved.
He says he’s been watching volunteers prepare the sales areas for this Saturday’s festival — clothing, treasures, jewelry and bake sale tables, children’s activities, “not to mention the pies, of course. I’ve not seen anything like it. It’s generating a real feeling of palpable excitement. And it’s not just about St. Mark’s. Our focus for this year is doing this for the wider community.”
As important as the return of such events is to the community, “in a world where so much is going crazy, and much is changing for ill, church can be a refuge, a place of calm in the midst of a storm. It’s so important for people to have that.”
The Cherry Festival is this Saturday, July 9, at 9 a.m. to 2 p.m at St. Mark’s Anglican Church on Byron Street.