Our People, Our Community
The Little White Church at the End of the Road: Our Story of Life, Loss, and Hope
Curated by Karli Longthorne
Storyteller: Sylvia Longthorne, June Flath, Wendy Colcuc, Reverend Maya Landell, Karli Longthorne, Jacquie McLeod
November 15, 2022
Belongingness, connection, and stewardship were at the heart of Eastwood United Church from its inception in 1866 until its closure in 2019.
Eastwood United Church—located in a dispersed rural community in Southwestern Ontario—functioned not just as a place of worship, but as an extension of home to its congregants.
According to The United Church of Canada—the largest Protestant Christian denomination in Canada—one church building closes each week, with one-third of Canadian faith buildings being at risk of closure.
Alongside the closure of faith buildings, are the untold stories of families whose lives are forever changed. Meet some past members of the congregation and hear their stories.
Reconnecting with one’s rural roots, fostering intergenerational relationships, sustaining family tradition, and establishing a sense of belongingness in a wider Christian faith community were some of the key reasons folks attended Eastwood United Church.
Fostering intergenerational relationships and sustaining family tradition was important to Sylvia Longthorne, a previous musician and board member who recalls, “It was my great grandfather Reuben Kipp who had donated land to build Eastwood United Church. I've been a member all my life. I was born and raised and lived right across from the church. My grandparents went there, and so did my parents.”
June Flath, a previous board member and Sunday school teacher notes, “I was raised in the Eastwood community, so I went there as a child and have lots of ancestors that attended the church. I was looking for a sense of community for my kids and mostly a sense of extended family because our families were, or my husband’s family were [from] other places and I wanted them to grow up with a feeling of generational relationships.”
Eastwood United Church was more than just a building you went to on Sunday morning. It was a family tradition where you, “go to church and then you go across the road and have tea with grandma and salmon sandwiches for lunch,” says Jacquie McLeod, a previous board member and steward.
There was music in the air at Eastwood United. Forging new, lifelong companions, and discovering one’s love for music made a lasting impression on Sylvia Longthorne and Wendy Colcuc a previous board member, music director, and Sunday school teacher.
Reverend Maya Landell was the minister at Eastwood United church for 9 years and recalls how the Eastwood trio (Sylvia Longthorne, Jacquie McLeod, and Wendy Colcuc) and the choir were a heartline during her ministry there. “The church had a history of hymn singing, weekly gatherings for singing in people’s homes, and a sense that when a congregation sings together there is hope. They practiced faith through music and song,” she says.
The church was well known for its vibrant community and various fundraising events, chicken barbeques, turkey dinners, ham suppers, and variety nights. Maya recalls that “the Eastwood United Church congregation had heart, had fun together, had a rich spiritual life of faith, and maintained a connection to the community even when people moved away.”
Despite its ongoing struggle to sustain consistent financial support and new churchgoers, Eastwood Church remained resilient to closure for many years owing to the tireless work of a few board members with countless responsibilities, charismatic leadership, and families who were committed to showing up on Sunday and at fundraising events.
Reverend Maya Landell extended its life, even though congregation numbers were dwindling. “Her charismatic leadership, ability to create a message from the pulpit and integration into our community left a lasting impression on us. When she left, it was a hard act to follow,” describes Jacquie McLeod and June Flath.
Reverend Maya Landell holds fond memories noting, “Eastwood was my first church after I was ordained, I was settled there, meaning that the National Church matched me and my gifts to serve with the people of Eastwood and their gifts. Eastwood United Church let me be myself and find my way – trying, failing, and trying again.”
In the church's final months, Wendy Colcuc recalls, “Rev. Maya telling us at one of the board meetings that the reality was that she didn't see any new children or new families coming to the church and so it seemed like the writing was on the wall a number of years before but maybe we just didn't want to face it at that time.”
“One thing about Eastwood United Church…if I've heard it once I've heard it 1000 times is we were a standalone church. Our community in Eastwood had the little white church at the end of the road and no homes no private homes around or very few. Properties around our church did not belong to our church, and people who lived nearby did not come and see what was going on and most of the people were coming from away,” says Jacquie McLeod.
This was the case for Reverend Maya Landell, who resided outside of the Eastwood community and served its sister church, Innerkip United Church.
The lack of newcomers, combined with overburdened churchgoers, and dwindling financial resources ultimately led to its closure in November 2019.
“We didn’t just mourn the loss of our church, but also our faith community, our family, and our identities,” says Karli Longthorne, a previous member and church pianist. “Over time, we have been able to reflect, grieve and heal from our loss. It's been three years since the closure of our church, and over time our grief has transformed into gratitude,” she says.
“While the pews of our little white church remain vacant, our deep roots remain. They live in the spirits of our loved ones who have since passed, in the melody of songs that we sing to our children, and our children’s children, in our Sunday morning coffee chats, and in our lifelong friendships that remind us of what we loved most about Eastwood United Church,” says Karli Longthorne.
“God did new things at Eastwood and will continue to do new things in each of your lives, stay grounded – keep following the soundtrack of your lives and the light that will never go out,” says Maya Landell.
The story of Eastwood United Church continues. The old church building is now home to a new business called Wood Working Creations whose team specializes in crafting custom-made dining sets, coffee tables, end tables and console tables. Jacquie McLeod and Sylvia Longthorne, who welcomed the new business owner, say, “We couldn’t be happier to see the church building being used to create new life within our local community. In many ways, we feel that our story lives on—and are happy to know it is in the hands of a young entrepreneur.”
Karli Longthorne: My name is Karli Longthorne and I'll be the facilitator today covering a very interesting story about the lives of some ladies who attended Eastwood United Church, a small rural United Church located in Eastwood ON that has since closed in November 24th, 2019. I was a member of this church since I was one and was the pianist there for six years. Today I'll be joined by four ladies who will be sharing a bit about what it was like attending a rural church and have a look into how the closure of their church impacted them and where they are now.
Karli Longthorne: Hello ladies thank you for joining me today. I would actually like to start by doing a few introductions for our audience so if you could tell us your name and a bit about your connection to Eastwood United church?
Jacquie McLeod: My name is Jacquie McLeod, and I am a transplanted westerner but I've been in southwest Ontario for 40 plus years, so I guess I'm sort of a little bit from this area. Eastwood church was part of my husband’s family home church and when we decided that we were going to start worshipping that is the church we settled into.
Karli Longthorne: How long do you think that you went there?
Jacquie McLeod: For me sporadically, probably since we moved 1981- to present or just before present but really more regularly in 1995 on.
June Flath: I'm June Flath I was raised in the Eastwood community so I went there as a child and have lots of ancestors that attended the church then moved away and got married and when we moved back to the area we brought our kids to the church. I was looking for a sense of community for the kids and mostly a sense of extended family because our families were, or my husband’s family were other places and I wanted them to grow up with a feeling of most generational relationships an ability to react politely and with fun to all ages so we went to Eastwood.
Karli Longthorne: Awesome thanks.
Wendy Colcuc: I'm Wendy Colcuc, my husband and I moved to the Burgessville Eastwood area in 2002 and we had no family in this area so I was looking for a church that had rural roots based on where I grew up. I grew up with a rural church and I was looking for that kind of church was also looking for a bit of an extended family too because we didn't have any family around the area so it takes a village to raise children so that certainly happened at Eastwood United Church. We started attending in March of 2002 with my two small children and then I've had my other two children after that raised in the church so we were members right until 2019.
Karli Longthorne: Awesome.
Sylvia Longthorne: I'm Sylvia Longthorne, I've been a member all my life I was born and raised lived right across from the church it was very community organized. We had all kinds of things happening at the church when I was younger there was lots of children in the Sunday school lots of people participating and it was relatively healthy. Lots of people going… as years went by and it kind of went down people moving out new people coming in that didn't belong to our congregation or just had their own churches. So, but I even moving away from Eastwood still came to my church and I my husband and I adopted in 1998. Karli was one and she was a part of that congregation as well.
Karli Longthorne: Thanks. Could you speak to your family roots there?
Sylvia Longthorne: It was my great Grandfather Reuben Kipp who had donated land to build the church.
Karli Longthorne: That's a really cool connection thank you.
Karli Longthorne: So I was wondering, can you describe your experience attending a rural church?
Jacquie McLeod: Well that is very interesting coming at from the city I was born and raised the city girl from the city and coming in living in a rural community and where we lived was probably about five minutes up the road if you know what I'm talking about just down the down the road I guess and my husband’s family lived right across the road that's where the homestead was that's where the century farm was and my mother-in-law and father-in-law lived there until he passed in 1991 and then my mother-in-law Papa lived right across the road so it was always you go to church you do your church thing and then you go across the road and have tea with grandma and salmon sandwiches for lunch and that was the thing that we did but the community part of it by the time I got there my children were older and had made their own faith choices and so they weren't in the church like I was so who is really kind of a soul thing my spouse was sort of intermittent in the church and we did do a couple of leadership roles in there but otherwise it was just huge difference because I came from a Roman Catholic background it was also a French speaking church and so it was really different to be in the United church with English speaking prayers and things like that although the music was something that sort of brought us together as well 'cause that was part of my enjoyment of being in the church.
June Flath: I think for me the experience that stands out in my head over and over was when we first started attending when we moved back to the community and Jesse was maybe 4 and we tried another rural church in the area but when she came into Eastward she would head straight for your mom [Sylvia Longthorne] and her friends sitting in the back row and independent like she just had her social circle and it was anybody and everybody and that sort of sense of, of safety and and place as a really little person really cemented it for me. And for my son to make almost best friends with another woman because of their love for violin was just again this connection that you can make regardless of age. For my husband he wanted to go there because everybody knew who he was he was my husband he was you know Mary's son-in-law he was Carl's… and there was just this sense of place that came from a small congregation and a rural congregation with roots in the area I think.
Karli Longthorne: Thanks.
Wendy Colcuc: When we moved to Burgessville in 2002 my two young children were attending another church and I found them to be quite shy at the time. Whether it was age or or what it was but so I knew it was important for them… for us to find another church and I was hoping that I could find something pretty close so I went to about three or four churches I went church shopping. And it went OK but what I found was that there were any of the some of the rural churches that we attended there were very few people who are attending and you could just tell that maybe some of those churches might not be here in ten years, five years and I have to say that I actually watched Eastwood United Church for many more years before 2002 because I started working in Woodstock in 1995 and so from 1995 until 2002 I drove by Eastwood every day on my way to work. And every middle of June of every year I would see these tables out and there would be a chicken barbecue and there would be throngs of people all over the place and I would think how is that rural church actually still alive? How is it still open? So anyway…fast forward, I moved to the area in 2002 and I thought I'm going to go to that Eastwood church on the corner…that white church. I walked in one day and there was a congregation full of people, they were lots of children they were you know there are elderly people there were senior people there were four people in their 40s people in their 30s and children and it was a very alive congregation and it was it the congregation had so much electricity and energy and almost immediately as soon as I walked in I think that this was the place that I wanted to be. So I walked up to these two ladies here [Sylvia Longthorne and Jacquie McLeod] one day and asked if they if they would ever like anybody to help them with singing, that I used to belong to a choir and so they wrapped their arms around me and never let me go.
Jacquie McLeod: Your hired! [Laughs]
Sylvia Longthorne: So since I was kind of a person that was always there born and raised my family lived I was a McLeod my maiden name is McLeod so Jacquie is my sister-in-law so being living like not too far from the church we kind of… during the winters would look after turning on the heat and making sure that the laneway was cleared out so it was a given that's what we would do…
Karli Longthorne: It was almost like an extension of your home right?
Sylvia Longthorne: Very much, yeah very much so! Looking back I remember in my childhood like 6 up to maybe 12 that the Sunday school was very vibrant I remember an older gentleman who led the Sunday school he was amazing he, he was a singer and he just brought us in and I think that I realized how much I loved music and so as time went on we didn't per say have a choir but to mention I also played for the church around 15 years which I kind of forgot about about, and we did have a small choir of older ladies at the time and we would have an anthem whether it was ready or not each Sunday and nobody cared as long as we were singing and then as time went on I didn't want what position anymore so people had come and gone from the position and then my daughter [Karli Longthorne] took over and then we formed a choir and… to go back a little bit another lady had taken us through many choirs and she was amazing lady Eileen Hayward, she was the most amazing piano player she played by ear she could do anything played in any key transpose it without having it written on paper which was totally amazing to me I've thought wow and she took us a long way she had that experience and we did what she told us to do, we did it and man we were pretty good. We would go places but we would not, not do it either so… and then she had to give it up over health reasons and then we tried to keep it going and then [Karli] you came along and kept us going and singing as it really and or whoever wanted to sing with us and I think that's what really… I really enjoyed that really it was a community based but also the friendships that we shared and when the church closed there was not easy… so we had each other yeah.
Karli Longthorne: Awesome, thanks.
Karli Longthorne: June you were kind of talking about how there's these waves of loss and gains in terms of people in the community but what do you think and I mean it's open the floor for everyone, what do you think really kept it going for all those years?
June: Well one thing is families moving in, so you get an influx of of half a dozen families that bring, have their children because of the location they come and so that and then you ride that wave of those kids grow up and then they leave right and so then unless there is another influx of families moving into the area, you kind of slide down and the kids don't stay because then and it's maybe they'll come back that they go off to university here you know you want them yeah.”
Karli Longthorne: “and you even mentioned a bit about it also matters who the leadership is at that time as well I guess.”
Jacquie McLeod: “Totally yeah people would say if it wasn't for Ethel and Earl, this place would have closed down a long time ago and that was a staunch belief, couple and whatever but prior to that there were people that dug in you know when the numbers were low and they said yeah and that you know if it was like an infusion of, of people that grab them like their children..”
Sylvia Longthorne: “There also was infusion of money too, maybe people wouldn’t attend but people would donate…'cause you have to have that to survive.”
June Flath: “So you can have your pews full right, but if you don't have any money coming in… but the reverse can be true. There are churches that are full of money but theres nobody in to do all the jobs.”
Jacquie McLeod: “There's no butts in the pews… like sure you can pay the bills but then you you lose spirit you lose connectedness you you lose for sure like why why are we having a service for three people.”
June Flath: “but you also have to not just pay the bills but do the jobs. And that was one of the problems that mom talked about that the numbers got so low that they didn't have enough people on the board to do all the jobs or to do things like the chicken barbeque right.”
Sylvia Longthorne: “but they kept doing it.”
June Flath: “you’re right they did.”
Wendy Colcuc: “They ended up carrying two and three jobs which is not sustainable in the long run, it’s sustainable in the short run…”
June Flath: “in a crisis run…”
Karli Longthorne: “What are some of the jobs that you would say?”
June Flath: “so Sunday school and board members and an choir and any of the events that you would want to run…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “There would always have to be somebody running them and then people under them…”
Jacquie McLeod: “ and it was always really like it was a huge tradition you know we've always had a cold ham luncheon in May and we always had the chicken barbeque in June and we finally brought it together because there was never a Turkey supper till probably our group it was later yeah later they didn't have a Turkey supper sit down Turkey meal but we started that yeah and you know and people would say well if it wasn't for so and so…and we can’t burn them out….but you did, we did get burned out…
Sylvia Longthorne: “you can’t help but burn them out”
Jacquie McLeod: “There were a lot of jobs and only a few people to do them…”
June Flath: “and you need those events to bring in the money because their numbers are dropping…”
Karli Longthorne: “just a vicious cycle…”
Jacquie McLeod: “right yeah he sounded like a Whirlpool…”
Wendy Colcuc: “ but on the other side when we would put on an event people from the community would come and then that connectedness would happen during that event and then the next day even though the rest of us were exhausted from helping at it and there was like this energy…”
June Flath: “yeah they were all homecoming…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “yeah and people loved it too because you knew most of the people at those events.”
Karli Longthorne: “that's really interesting so I mean you kind of already talked about it and how that was kind of the reason why it closes… this, people were just burnt out there wasn't enough people for enough jobs was there anything else that kind of led to its closure?
Wendy Colcuc: “I do recall Rev. Maya [past minister] telling us at one of the board meetings that the reality was that she didn't see any new children, new families coming to the church and so seems like the writing was kind of on the wall an number of years before but maybe we just didn't want to face it at that time it might have even like 2015…”
June Flath: “ but they will said the same thing about that time period in the 90’s…we should close…we should close…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “and that’s what they did say…”
June Flath: “let’s just hold on a little bit longer a little bit longer so it's hard to know yeah”
Jacquie McLeod: “ and also when you think about it Rev. Maya had said something about and so we rallied then to kinda like prove her wrong sort of thing you know but then her leadership was really it it really energized again it was one of the up parts of the rollarcoaster, and I mean you know we don't want till death do us part nobody expects that but she had been with us for 10 years and then she was she was moving her her her ministry elsewhere and that was no no anger or anything she was moving on and that was you know totally appropriate for her and her family but the rest of us were really in a grieving position….”
Sylvia Longthorne: “right, because we knew what was going to happen…”
Jacquie Mcleod: “almost because we had even felt the energy and wanted to sustain it in that and we gave it a good try…”
June Flath: “that whole leadership role is huge like that charismatic leadership, like that ability to just…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “ bring people in… and I feel it herself she felt it…”
June Flath: “and create a message from the pulpit and all that kind of stuff and I just if you follow that with a quieter leadership that would work under different circumstances but follow…. it's a hard act to follow….”
Jacquie: “… it is and when we were starting to diminish again so the for the final swansong or whatever when we would put out what our church was about when you're trying to hire on another minister or whatever and you're putting things that well maybe was more your heyday and is not quite so so true like you keep expecting that it's going to be just as dynamic you know or just going to go from one minister to next or whatever and those things are different plus the one thing about Eastwood United Church in that I've heard it once I've heard it 1000 times is we were a standalone church our community in Eastwood had the little white church at the end of the road and no homes no private homes around or very few less and less people that were living in the farms are on their properties around our church did not belong to our church did not come and see what was going on and most of the people were coming from away….”
June Flath: “and I think about our family specifically, as well as mom, they were people who had lived in the area and attended and moved away and still kept coming out and your right there is a point where you look around the congregation and notice that everyone is coming from away…”
Jacquie McLeod: “and everyone is worried about parking…you know Helen and George weren’t coming across the highway and Carl and Mary were not coming up the road and stuff like that and so that really made it big yeah well the shift it was a big shift a lot of churches are at least in the community where their worshippers come from and our little church historically was stand alone…”
June Flath: “and serving the neighborhood…”
Jacquie McLeod: “that's right yeah and yet the closeness and because of a myriad of things but the closeness that you had with the people that were around you was not there it was reserved for Sunday when the people came in from wherever they came from you and that closeness sparked well right but it was just not sustainable it wasn't the same…”
June Flath: “ there's also a history with United Church being Methodist itinerant preacher kind of history where you don't have a like so are ministers came from away and did not live near us that's right and so our minister was never apart of our day-to-day even when the rural community was what went to the church and i think that's a history of when you take care of yourself and we had leadership that was frustrated with that because our little church and our people made the decisions we made went off and made yeah choices and went in directions and the minister was left going who decided this? So well that’s what we had to do…we had to be independent.
Wendy Colcuc: “I have to say that for two years I really really grieved the loss of our church community my youngest two daughters they would grieve every single time they would drive by the church and they would think about you know what it was… why we couldn’t go back…. but I needed time like you said Jacquie. I needed time to work through the feelings…and and work through the idea that if I I feel like when I went to Eastwood that I gave it my all, I really tired it burnt out and the idea of going to another church and giving my all is very reserved to do that now.”
Jacquie McLeod: “that’s why I’m going to Stratford…”
Wendy Colcuc: “but then I got thinking you know it's it's 2022 is two years after covid-19 is hopefully ramping down more services are becoming in person again things are returning a little bit more to normal and I thought well I still have a 14 year old daughter and I'd really like her to have some Christian education so I guess I've been looking around I had. After our church closed down I had this big list of things that I wanted from a church you know I had to be at early morning service and I wanted it to have Sunday school and I wanted to be at you know an alive engaging church I wanted to have a strong choir and and close warm cozy feeling…which was all the things that Eastwood was, and the thing is you’ll never find another church that’s exactly the same. So that’s been my thought process and so now I've whittled it down to you know a couple churches and I've accepted the fact that there isn't anything that will ever be like Eastwood and that but maybe it's time to go back to something and so yeah I've got a couple different ones that I've been going to and the kids are there are OK with going to it and one of the churches has like an outreach like a large outreach program and so I think instead of me going into the… going and becoming a board member or steward I can never do that again I think I would rather just do outreach operation sharing or something that would be…you know meaningful….”
Sylvia Longthorne: “and you don’t even have to go to church for you have to go to church for that right…”
Wendy Colcuc: “the outreach yeah that's true it's like another wing yeah yeah…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “ I guess there's different perspectives…”
June Flath: “For me I haven't gone searching but I also had burned out before you you guys they had to do that last few years…and my kids were grown and they were gone and and I have a few years that were kind of challenging at work and it just felt like I was peopled out during the week and so I had already kind of started to step back… I missed it I miss you guys I miss the music I missed the poetry of this sermon and the message and the thought process of being out of your head and out of your daily life. But when I think about stepping into… I I am really anxious about the commitment and what will be expected and, and the board meetings in the end you don't have to join those but you feel a sense of obligation to carry your weight if you were going to be a member or attend an I've been really hesitant…”
Jacquie McLeod: “and they identify easily identify the people that do have that leadership quality and so they almost want to greet you at the door and say hey you're new here how about his job on the on the board that's because what it is it is…”
Wendy Colcuc: “because they’re faced with dwindling numbers…”
June Flath: “and you feel for them…”
Jacquie McLeod: “but then they come out with it will only be a couple of meeting per year, but you know you can’t look at it just isolated in that I mean there's you know things are changing and evolving at the United church and they want job descriptions now and they want terms you know… whereas Eastwood was give your guts yeah give your heart give your guts give everything you got give it for free and just give…. because you'll get so much back because we are the small country church and we will we love you but the then part that you played everybody was instrumental in one way or another you know and so it was always like….”
June Flath: “it was a real teamwork…it was a team effort…but that comes with obligation…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “June do you remember the last Turkey Supper?...”
Wendy Colcuc: “…our very last dinner was the ham supper…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “I’m remembering that you and I were…I think it was a Turkey but I could be wrong but the supper that we did that we were working together with tables….and there was only like 3 of us….”
June Flath: “Yes I do now that you mentioned it I have managed to block it out (laughs)…
Sylvia Longthorne: “We were run off our feet…”
Jacquie McLeod: “I remember trying to get her in the car and her [Sylvia Longthorne] legs were so sore…”
June Flath: “She had sore feet and we had said you know oh we’ll do one hour of whatever…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “yeah we ended up doing the rest of the night when we got on there and I think I had to bow out, I couldn’t even help with dishes”
Jacquie McLeod: “she couldn’t bow”
Sylvia Longthorne: “we were so hysterical because…”
Wendy Colcuc: “and your dedication to going to that same fundraiser meant that about two days later you were in bed with pneumonia…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “yeah that's true yeah right….I think I bowed out of a few fundraisers because I had pneumonia I think I was feeling the stress before I got there…Wendy, I have pneumonia…”
Wendy Colcuc: “as a steward my responsibility while there is a group of stewards but again it was becoming fewer and fewer…”
Jacquie McLeod: “ yeah don't burn Wendy out, don’t burn Wendy out, they would say that all the time…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “it was like if Wendy walked towards you, you run…”
Wendy Colcuc: “and I did my job with a great amount of guilt because I knew that the church needed the money and as the congregation dwindled the list became a page…I had this way of not allowing them to say no…which I really regret now…
Sylvia Longthorne: “do you really Wendy?”
Wendy Colcuc: “no I do, in hindsight I I really do because it stopped being like the fun loving thing and more like a job…”
Sylvia Longthorne: “but I have to say and I much pain as I was in that night…we had a lot of fun and I talked to a lot of people.”