With Hazelmere United Church packed full for its popular sing-alongs – and a core group of volunteers dedicating time and resources to the heritage building’s upkeep – it’s hard to imagine that at one point the church had trouble attracting any community interest.
In fact, it was close to closing its doors when Joanne and Ken Ratray read a call for members in Peace Arch News nearly 10 years ago.
There were only four or five people in the congregation at that time, she said, and the church’s hall had no running water or plumbing.
“Ken and I read the article in the newspaper and I said, ‘Let’s go up there.’ We had driven past it for so many years.”
It was the building’s welcoming atmosphere and small-town charm that won them over.
“I felt like I’d come home because this church is so similar to the church I went to as a child.”
Joanne began playing piano alternately with member Doris Ferry, who suggested the church hold sing-alongs to attract more people.
“That was her language: ‘If you hold a sing-along and invite the community, they will come.’ And they did,” Joanne said.
The Ratrays assembled some of their musical friends for the first event in 2002, which drew around 40 people. The second sing-along, Carols in the Country, was held at Christmastime to another enthusiastic crowd.
“Nobody anticipated, ever, that that many people would come,” Joanne said.
Now, around 90 people turn out for the sold-out sing-alongs, which tend to play country folk and gospel, and are held four times a year (the next one is in September).
The experience is made all the more enjoyable for guests thanks to the financial contributions of Doug Grieve.
Grieve, 89, said his mother attended Hazelmere United in the early ’50s, and, before she died, told him to give the church a hand if one was ever needed.
After drifting away from the congregation for 20 years and returning, Grieve now sits in the same pew his mother sat.
His financial support – combined with contributions from other members – has allowed renovations to the church’s hall, which is the former Halls Prairie schoolhouse and was brought to the 1614 184 St. site in the ’40s.
Now that it has a bathroom, kitchen and running water, church volunteers are able to entertain sing-along guests with a fully cooked meal after the program.
“The energy level in the hall afterwards is incredible,” Ken said. “It’s just such a great feeling they have, and it’s such a simple pleasure.”
Members seem to agree that the sing-alongs – now Hazelmere United’s largest fundraisers – helped revive the 108-year-old church, which has more than quadrupled its membership and is not only financially self-sustaining, but is now able to donate to others.
“It was Doris’ dream, and many years ago it was Doug’s financial resources and a small group of people who helped cook,” Joanne said of the events. “There isn’t anything else like it.”
“It’s like an old-fashioned in-the-Prairies get-together,” he said.
“This is real. The people here, they care. They care about each other and they’re so kind.”