The Star wrote: A small Ontario town welcomed this Egyptian immigrant. Now he’s buying its church — to save it (he use to attend to St Elie MARONITE parish in London...
HENSALL, ONT.—Joseph was broken; ditto for one of the wise men. Storage had been hard on the nativity scene.
“I had my husband glue the heads back on,” says Tracey Cooper in amid a scramble to get ready for an unexpected Christmas Eve service. “It’s not going to be perfect, and you know what, that’s OK.”
Local pharmacist Michael Haddad outside the United Church in Hensall, Ont., this month. Part of why he is putting up money to buy the church is that he worries that because Hensall has an older population they’d be unable to attend another church. “How about all those people who don’t drive?” he wondered. “How can they pray?” (GEOFF ROBINS / For the Toronto Star)Out of another box came the Advent wreath. Then the candles, battery operated just to be safe, as Cooper and her friends decorated the church sanctuary. A tree? They found one tucked away in the darkness, set it up near the pulpit and gave it life with a festive mishmash of artificial poinsettia leaves and silver garlands. They were trying to create a certain ambiance.
“We want warm and welcoming,” says Cooper. “It’s a new era, that’s what we’re going for.”
If urgency can be joyous, that’s what is unfolding on the main street of this village north of London.
In an astonishing reversal, Hensall United Church, officially shuttered in November, has been saved — imbued with new life just in time for Christmas by an Egyptian immigrant’s spirit of giving.
At a time when rural congregations are shrinking and small-town churches are closing — the United Church of Canada alone has been losing seven a year in southwestern Ontario recently — Hensall has a saviour in its midst, an improbable one at that.
The 131-year-old Protestant church, in a community not known for its diversity, is being resurrected by a Roman Catholic from the Middle East.
Michael Haddad, the town’s pharmacist for the last eight years, stepped forward to purchase the building. That he will reopen it as place of worship makes this an unusual story of rebirth.
It’s not rare for a church to be sold. They are then typically retrofitted for another use or torn down for the land. Rev. Tom Dunbar, a United Church minister from nearby Mitchell helping navigate the sale, says he’s never heard of an individual buying a church to keep it as a church.
The United Church in Hensall could host other denominations as well, and become more of a community hub. (GEOFF ROBINS)
Haddad will pay $250,000 for the building, a price within a range provided by appraisers. The proposal has been approved by Hensall United’s trustees and its congregation. Lawyers are drawing up the paperwork to be submitted to the United Church of Canada.
As part of the agreement, Haddad and his wife, Asteir Hanna, will bequeath the property to their 20-year-old son, Andrew. If Andrew has no interest in maintaining it, or dies himself, the church will return to the congregation.
“I will never get one penny back of my money,” says Haddad, an infectiously friendly 58-year-old. “I did it for two reasons. One, and this is maybe 90 per cent, I did it for religious reasons. I consider it a duty as a Christian to keep a church of Christ open. It hurt me to hear it was closing.
“Ten per cent is for the people of Hensall who really support me. If I came here as a foreigner in this town and people said, ‘We are not going to support a business like that,’ within a month or two I would leave. But I felt very welcome. My heart is for this town. I felt like the pharmacy would be a success from day one.”
Haddad says he worried, too, that because Hensall has an older population — 20 per cent is over 65 — they’d be unable to attend another church. “How about all those people who don’t drive?” he wondered. “How can they pray?”
Haddad’s plan is to turn Hensall’s last church into a community hub that any denomination can use for worship. All revenue raised through events such as car washes, rummage sales or Sunday collections will go to maintenance.
“This is very much a story of hope,” says Dunbar. “That’s what our faith is all about and it has all these other threads in it, too, that are so wonderful, the idea of peace and working together and breaking down barriers when we’re in a time when it seems to be OK to raise barriers. This is definitely going against that flow.”
Cooper, keeping with the season, sees it in another light.
“It’s cheesy but it’s kind of a Christmas miracle. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
They’d gathered in this building countless times; sometimes there’d be laughter, sometimes tears. A church, especially in a small town, isn’t just a place for Sunday service. There are lunches, dinners, AA meetings, horticultural clubs, baby and wedding showers, community gatherings and of course weddings, funerals and baptisms.
It really is woven into the fabric of the community and, on Nov. 25 with a closing service, that community said goodbye.
The number of church attendees on any given Sunday had fallen to somewhere between 16 and 20. And Jeffrey Dale, Hensall United’s last regular minister, said the average age “was in the 80s.”
That aging congregation did everything it could to keep it alive but it wasn’t sustainable. There was only enough money in the coffers to shut it down.
But Haddad, who attends church in London, heard of the imminent closure and drafted a proposal to Hensall United’s trustees.
“I think it is so amazing that somebody from the outside said, ‘I’m your neighbour. I see you struggling. Let me help you,’ ” says Dale.
Organist and church trustee Chuck Mallette invited everyone from the village of about 1,000 to gather at Hensall United recently to hear one man's vision to save Hensall United Church, not sure how many would show up. (GEOFF ROBINS)
Given that potential lifeline, Chuck Mallette — a church organist and trustee — invited everyone from the village of about 1,000 to gather at Hensall United on a December Monday to hear one man’s vision to save it. Mallette and his wife lined up 50 chairs in a church community room. He wondered if that was too optimistic.
In the end, about 80 people came in out of the cold to hear what the pharmacist had to say.
Haddad stood at the front of the wood-panelled room and, exuding earnestness, read from a letter, his accent still evident after two decades in Canada. He quoted Scripture, he spoke of his plans to bring in foosball and ping-pong tables and have movie and video game nights to attract young people. He explained how he’d like to bring back Sunday school, which once thrived in the church. He explained his business plan because, he joked, the gas and water bills can’t be paid with prayers and God’s good wishes. People laughed.
Warming up and no longer needing notes, he spoke of how everyone could participate in a new vision. It would cost people nothing other than their willingness to help and take part.
“This church has millions of memories. I couldn’t imagine a truck would come and remove it,” he said. “This church is a historical treasure and holds a place in everyone’s heart in Hensall.”
This was a revival meeting in every sense of the word and Haddad won over the crowd. It felt like a scene from an old Frank Capra movie as those gathered started presenting their own ideas about revitalizing the yellow-brick showpiece that would be renamed Hensall Community Church.
Maybe there could be music again, it had been so long since the church had a choir. Perhaps it was possible to have special services for the migrant farm workers who arrive in the area every spring. And wouldn’t it be great for the town’s youth to have somewhere safe to hang out.
Mallette had placed sign up sheets on tables at the side of the hall for those who wanted to take an active role in the church’s direction. By the end of the gathering, 20 people had left their names.
A private, smaller meeting of congregation members was held afterward. They agreed to accept Haddad’s proposal. Apparently, there wasn’t much pushback.
“Michael is willing to put his money where his faith is,” says Mallette.
Cheryl Rader, left, Tracey Cooper, Asteir Hanna and her husband, Michael Haddad, and Chuck Mallette in the United Church in Hensall. Rader, Cooper and Mallette are among those scrambling toorganize the Christmas Eve service. (GEOFF ROBINS)
Haddad and his wife didn’t have to leave Egypt. They were both pharmacists there as well and had a good life. But they were also adventurous and, while not political, they both yearned to live in a country with more freedom.
They looked to Canada or Australia but it was Canada that was in need of pharmacists. They arrived in 1995.
Michael first worked as a Domino’s Pizza delivery man and at a gas station. Asteir served customers at a Coffee Time. In their off-hours, they upgraded their education to be licensed in Canada.
Now they feel like they live in a type of paradise.
“It’s a beautiful country,” says Haddad. “It’s a rich country. Even just driving home, it’s dark and it’s winter but you feel your spirits are up. You are very lucky to be in Canada.”
Hanna has her own pharmacy in London. Haddad has had his store in Hensall since 2011 after working in places such as Goderich and Exeter as an employee. He knew this village lacked a pharmacy and loved the intimacy of small-town life. He makes the 45-minute drive to London most nights but stays in an apartment over Hensall Pharmacy when the weather is bad.
He regularly attends Saint Elias Maronite Catholic Church in London where he is a director and treasurer. He is also a financial adviser at London’s Almanarah Presbyterian Church. He understands the business side of religion.
He also understands that King St. in Hensall – known as the White Bean Capital of Canada — isn’t what it was. Haddad keeps a postcard behind his pharmacy counter that depicts that main street as thriving. He guesses the image is from about 1980. The big grocery store was gone before he got here. There are many empty storefronts. The bank just left. Haddad must now drive the nine kilometres south to Exeter just to make change.
“The closing of the church, had it happened, would’ve been another gut punch to the village,” says Mallette.
Haddad says he loves it here and feels loyalty to a town that has treated him so well. He says he longed to give something back.
“But I never feel like I’m doing something great or amazing,” he says. “God put me in this town for a reason and maybe that reason came now.
“Maybe it is a Christmas gift for this lovely town.”
"We decided that if there was a way it was going to be saved, we were going to get involved," says Cheryl Rader. "We'd sat back long enough." (GEOFF ROBINS)
They’re hoping for a packed house at Hensall United on Christmas Eve. The service will take on additional meaning, and an extra sense of celebration, given what was almost lost.
Cooper and her friend Cheryl Rader were among those who signed up at the meeting. Now they, along with Mallette and Heather Forrest, are organizing the service.
“We decided that if there was a way it was going to be saved, we were going to get involved,” says Rader. “We’d sat back long enough.”
Kathy Mann has been a member of Hensall United since 1962. She taught Sunday school there and remembers full pews with weekly attendance close to 300. Mann has always taken it upon herself to decorate for Christmas. This year, until Haddad offered to save the church, she couldn’t even bring herself to go into the sanctuary. Now she is part of the crew getting the church spruced up.
She remains “cautiously optimistic” about her church’s long-term viability.
“You’ve got to have faith and hope,” she says. “Never more than now.”
Paul Hunter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto.