In 2020, three Mennonite Church Saskatchewan congregations—Zoar Mennonite Church, Waldheim; Hanley Mennonite Church; and Superb Mennonite Church, near Kerrobert—made the difficult decision to close their doors and hold their final services.
Their reasons for doing so included financial pressures, changing community demographics, and not enough people to sustainably share the responsibilities of church life.
For many people, the hardest moments were the final services; the “lasts” that they shared together. But when the hugs had been given and the goodbyes said, practical decisions and questions about legacy remained.
“Once the membership made the decision that, yes, we would close, we tried to get a sense, overall, of the big picture, of what the final year would hold,” said Liz Baerwald, former chair of Zoar Mennonite. “How do we disperse property? What do we do with the building? What about all the stuff? It makes your head spin!”
Of the process, Gary Peters, Hanley’s former pastor, said: “I’d liken it to settling a person’s estate. You have to take care of their home and all their things.”
One of the hopes the three congregations had in common was that the church buildings and assets should be put to good use and should continue to help others.
Hanley Mennonite chose to keep its property, which includes a cemetery. The building itself is currently up for sale.
“We hope that someone will buy the building and move it off the land,” said. “The graveyard is still important to us, and we had a burial there just a couple of months ago. We were able to distribute a lot of the items in the church—the furnishings and such. Most of our hymnals and library materials went to Beautiful Feet Ministries, who give those items to churches in Zambia.”
The members of Superb Mennonite made the decision to return the land to the family of the original landholder. Mike Warkentin, the church’s former chair, said: “We offered the land back to the grandson of the man who had given the land to build the church on in 1944. He farms the land around the church and will use it for farmland, too. We decided to demolish the church building because we didn’t want him to have to deal with taking care of it.”
After all Superb’s affairs were taken care of, the remaining funds were turned into a legacy project at Camp Shekinah.
“The money to Shekinah was to be the legacy of Superb for those who were there at the beginning of the church, not so much the end. We wanted the faithfulness with which they started the church to keep going,” said Warkentin.
For Zoar Mennonite, the questions of what to do with the church building and assets proved to be a spiritual journey.
“We’ve learned that one is never led into a situation where God doesn’t provide an answer, even if it takes time,” Baerwald said. Selling the building was an ongoing process for the committee, and each possibility led to a dead end. “Many of the older people in our congregation told us to keep in mind that the building was built to serve this community, and that was still true, even if it wouldn’t serve as a church.”
In the end, the Town of Waldheim purchased the building to use as a community centre for events such as banquets and funerals. A preschool program continues to be run there and the town offices will move into the building in the future.
The proceeds from the building sale allowed Zoar Mennonite to make substantial donations to Camp Shekinah, Rosthern Junior College and Mennonite Central Committee. Donations were also made to food-security programs in the region.
Baerwald offered words of wisdom to churches who are facing similar questions about closing their buildings and what legacy they might try to leave: “Pray, pray, pray! Nothing happens quickly. . . . Pray that there is unity, and when everything is said and done there are still good relationships. That’s true for us, and we’re thankful to God for that.”
Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Saskatchewan? Send it to Emily Summach at firstname.lastname@example.org.