Woodpecker church opens again

The sound of history sings through the pews, said one young parishioner at St. Mark's Anglican Church, best known as Woodpecker church, built in 1939 and located 11 km north of Hixon.

Kyle Gillespie,17, used those poetic words as he best described the alarmingly loud cracking and creaking that resounds throughout the church each time the 21-member congregation was asked to be seated in the little church on Sunday morning.

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He comes to church with his twin sister Fionna and mom Laurel, who have lived in Hixon for years and have always wondered what the church looked like inside.

"This is something special that we have to attend," he said. "It's part of history."

And history is alive and well in the walls of the sturdy, stained glass window building that didn't see regular church services for most of the last 30 years. The vicar of Woodpecker, Alexis Saunders, began holding evening services again during the summer months in 2018. Saunders then reopened the church in May 2019, with members of the congregation requesting winter services, which are now held - weather permitting - once a month on Sunday mornings. There was a special Christmas Eve service held this year that saw about 35 people in attendance.

"This is a faithful community and they need a place to gather," Saunders said. "In these very uncertain times people need hope and they need community to maintain that hope."

With a generator thundering outside to provide power for the heaters inside the church that has no electricity or plumbing and no other source of heat that's to up to modern building codes, those attending church were bundled in their Sunday best, including faux fur coats, thick gloves, jaunty hats and a variety of scarves to stop the winter chill.

About 10 minutes before the service started, it was a balmy 17 C inside and that was considered warm enough.

At the back of the church, Vicar Saunders reached up with both hands to pull the rope that is fed through a small hole in the roof of the church to ring the bell so everyone knew it was time to start the service.

Soon, the strains of the pump organ could be heard as it was played by the experienced hands of Wanda Jackson.

Then the robed vicar began the service that was participatory in nature, engaging the congregation often.

"When I first saw this little church I was amazed that the Women's Institute in Hixon and the Volunteer Fire Department refurbished it, holding in trust its history for over 30 years before services began again," Saunders said. "To me it speaks of strong community bonds that hold villages together. This is what they speak of in big cities like Vancouver where the young people and the old people describe themselves as being very lonely."

Saunders spent from 2011 to 2015 in the downtown eastside of Vancouver at St. James Anglican Church on Cordova Street. It's Vancouver's oldest Anglican church that opened in 1881.

She made the conscious choice to also live in the downtrodden neighbourhood. Saunders said it was a diverse cross-section of people who attended services, including judges, university professors and those living on the streets and she felt a strong call to service there.

"That church was about providing beauty to those living in very dire circumstances," Saunders said about the experience.

After retirement, moving to Woodpecker from downtown Vancouver to be close to family offered a different perspective on the world.

"The reality of this church speaks well of its people who are hard-working people who have strong connections and relationships," Saunders said. "The church is very human-sized - it's the right size for this community. We've got family and friends and neighbours and people who have historical connections to this place who still gather here. Within the walls of this church, there is tradition and knowledge and culture."

Saunders told the congregation she understands the church is a gathering place for different denominations.

"The entire community is a place of sanctuary and makes this place a source of strength and resilience for whatever the future may bring," Saunders said with her arms wide open in a welcoming gesture.

As much as Kyle Gillespie wanted to be part of the church's recent history, Allan Thorp, 88, who grew up in Woodpecker, an area that began as a farming settlement, is now part of the church's living history and returned to the church for the Jan. 5 service.

Last summer, the church celebrated its 80th anniversary and Thorp attended that, too.

One of a family of eight, he said if they didn't show up for church back then there wasn't a reason to preach.

"We came to Woodpecker in 1937 and the church was built in 1939," Thorp recalled. "We lived a mile and a half away."

Anglican and United church ministers would take turns holding services.

Thorp is a dapper dresser, wearing a plaid cap, an overcoat and a thick vest over a white shirt and tie.

He opened his coat for a little show and tell.

"Mom always said we go to church in a white shirt and tie and so that's what I do to this day," Thorp said. "Coming back here brings back a lot of memories. Some of them are good."

It's also bittersweet for Thorp, who only has one surviving sibling left.

"As I look back at us hillbilly kids running around shooting rabbits and squirrels and looking for trouble, I think of my family and old friends who are all gone," Thorp said. "I'm pretty much the only one left from around here so it's emotional for me. I remember attending the cornerstone ceremony (Sept. 7, 1939) and next door was a community hall and that's where celebrations and dances were held and the school was close by, too."

Thorp said it was great that the vicar has opened the church for services after all these years. The last service before she came along was held at Christmas 1988.

"It would be nice if they could spruce it up a bit," Thorp said, looking around the old church as the snow started falling in earnest again outside.

"A little light and heat would be good."

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