Bonnie and Ray Lowrie know every inch of St. John’s Church in Wyoming.
They’ve been attending the historic church for 41 years. Bonnie has been one of two wardens – caretakers of the building and administrators – for the last 17 years. Ray recently became a lay reader and helped to lead services every Sunday.
But their work at the tiny white church is almost complete. Last summer, the congregation of 17 made the difficult decision to close the doors of one of the first churches in the region.
“We could see the end coming,” says Bonnie. “We’ve all known it for years.”
She says St. John’s would have never made it this far without a treasurer who scrimped and saved and a group of dedicated volunteers who baked thousands of meat pies and put on hundreds of dinners to pay the bills and keep the doors open.
As the church considered painting the church’s sanctuary and putting in a ramp for the older and infirmed parishioners, they recognized they had run out of time because of the “dwindling number of people” and the age of the congregation.
“I would continue another 17 years if we could stay. It is just that we’re all getting older and with none of the younger kids coming anymore, it is impossible to keep it going.”
Bonnie says it has been extremely difficult making the decision, attending last services and figuring out what to do with the items in the church.
She’s lost and she feels guilty about it.
“I feel all these people that worked so hard for 155 years to keep this building going, how farmers scrimped and saved to build this church… I feel so guilty.”
St. John’s does have a storied history.
In 1859, Wyoming became a stopping place for trains along the new Komoka to Sarnia line. The road between the newly opened oil fields in Oil Springs lead right to Wyoming and anyone wanting to explore the boom town needed to make their way from Wyoming by stage coach.
As the industry boomed, Wyoming bustled. It was home to five oil refineries, a foundry, machine shop, wagon works, sawmill, gristmill and wool factory.
The Anglican Church noticed the growing community and decided to set down roots in 1861.
The first bishop of Huron, the Rt. Rev. Benjamin Cronyn appointed the Rev’d J. S. Baker, a Church of England priest from Ireland, as incumbent of Wyoming and Oil Springs.
His first services were held in the waiting room of the train station, and later moved to the school house until a church was erected on this site in 1863.
The original church was rebuilt practically from its foundations in 1890, and was consecrated as St. John’s Church in 1892.
For many years, it was the only church in Wyoming. And it outlasted many. Both the Catholic and the Presbyterian churches have closed in the past few decades. “Little churches are not surviving,” says Bonnie Lowrie.
There was something special about St. John’s, she says, that kept the little church going – the people.
“Our whole church is like a family. We are very connected with each other and we work together as a team… the church is the building that holds us together but we are definitely family.” And she says closing up the building is like selling the family home and having nowhere to return to.
Saturday at 2 pm, the Bishop of the Huron Diocese will come to St. John’s to deconsecrate the building and the sacred items in a time-honoured ceremony. The building will then be sold.
Church members have been picking out items which they wish to keep. Other sacred items will be moved to area churches. The altar, carved by Artie Randall in the 1950s, will go to the Anglican Church in Ridgetown. The lectern will go to St. John’s in the Wilderness in Bright’s Grove. And the baptismal font – another hand carved item from Randall – will find a home at Petrolia’s Christ Church.
While she will miss the familiar space to worship, Lowrie says it is the people she will hold close to her heart.
“We had our whole family here with us.”