A church brings a community together

There is no lock on the door of the Mercer Settlement Church. Anyone is welcome to enter and sit in what must rival the world's most uncomfortable pews.

Most of what's inside - the hymnbooks, the offering plates, and the pulpit - have been donated secondhand.

Only six weddings have been performed in the church's 116-year history, perhaps because a typical bridal gown won't easily fit down the aisle.

The building has no electricity or plumbing. Those in need, like many before them, are welcome to go up the dirt road to the nearest neighbor's house.

There are no regular services and no pastor, either. There is, however, a resident church mouse, which this year chewed enough of the secondhand organ to necessitate repairs.

So what draws people to this little church in south-central New Brunswick? And why have they donated $20,000 to fund repairs to it in the past decade?

"It's sentimental to me," says Margriet Woodill, the newly elected chair of the church. "When we first moved here, we had services every Sunday in the summer and vacation Bible school. We would sing 'The Church in the Wildwood' at every service. It's not really in the wildwood, but it just fits."

Ms. Woodill was only 9 years old when her farming family, the van derLaans, moved from Holland to Mercer Settlement in 1980. The little church down the road became the heart of their new lives in Canada, the place where they met their neighbors and integrated themselves into the community.

Woodill's nostalgia for the church mirrors that of many others who come out a few times a year to attend services there.

"People want to get back to their roots," says Theresa Teakles, the unofficial church historian. And many people have roots in Mercer Settlement, which was once a thriving rural community, but has dwindled to a population of about 200 today.

The church has been a mainstay in the community since 1887, when Albert and Jane Humphrey, Ms. Teakles' great-grandparents, donated the land to a committee of the United Baptist Church in the nearby village of Norton. There was one string attached to the gift: The church to be built must be nondenominational.

In recent years, just four services have been held annually, with the most popular being the Christmas carol sing.

"It's the kickoff to the season around here," says Teakles.

About 80 people come to the carol sing to enjoy a visit to an uncomplicated past. The congregation still reads each carol's lyrics with the aid of oil lamps and candlelight. They're in complete agreement that electricity would never be welcome in the antique church.

Until recently, an old wood stove kept the carolers warm. One modern concession has been a propane heater, although the wood stove still occupies its rightful place.

"When we got the heater, a number of people said, 'You're not going to take the stove out, are you?' " Teakles recounts.

Ten years ago, the future of the church was uncertain.

"It was in disrepair," says Teakles. "We needed to decide whether to fix it up, or tear it down and put up a monument."

But three dozen people showed up to pledge their support, and since then, the church has undergone an extensive face-lift, with new windows, a steel door, siding, and a new pine interior - all without an official fundraising campaign.

"We've never had any big fundraisers, because the people of the community and those who used to live here helped out," says Teakles. "We just made a few calls across the country, and they offered us money."

Last summer, the church held another meeting to determine its future.

This time a dozen people came out to support the church, and Woodill was chosen as its chair. At that meeting the committee decided to reduce the number of services from four to two a year.

Because of recent publicity the church has received, though, its anniversary service held in August saw 100 people squeeze into the little church, the biggest crowd in living memory.

The service was an emotional one for Woodill. In 1993, when the first call went out to save the church, it was her mother, Grace van derLaan, who was chosen to chair the committee. And it was Grace who hosted the community potluck dinners after each service and who organized the puppet show for the Christmas service.

"Grace was a very strong force in the community," says Teakles. "She was very active."

Grace died last spring, but the regular potluck dinner went on at her house, now Woodill's house, after the service.

"All you have to do is vacuum and dust, and the community takes over," says Woodill. "Everyone brings something to eat."

The loss of older members of the community will, in all likelihood, prompt another meeting of supporters sometime in the next few years, but the two women have faith that the future holds a place for their little church.

There are days when Teakles can't help stopping on her way by the church and slip inside for some quiet meditation. When the afternoon sun shines through the small stained-glass window, the shadow of a cross is superimposed on the large wooden cross hanging at the front of the church. That image is enough to confirm for Teakles that all is well within.

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