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New Westminster's Presbyterians celebrate 150 years in the city

Tim Bruneau is the minister at First Presbyterian Church, which is the focal point for celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Presbyterianism in New Westminster. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Tim Bruneau is the minister at First Presbyterian Church, which is the focal point for celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Presbyterianism in New Westminster.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

In the last decade of the 1800s religion was a competitive and sensitive business. The many denominations were often divided along cultural and philosophical lines.

So when the Great Fire of 1898 broke out in Downtown New Westminster wiping out the places of worship for the Anglicans, Baptists and Methodists, it was an unusual gesture for the Presbyterians to offer their sanctuary to the others.

To Rev. Tim Bruneau it may have been the denomination’s finest hour in its 150 years in the city.

“That was significant back then. Today most people don’t have a clue about the differences,” says Bruneau, whose First Presbyterian church will be celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Presbyterian presence in the city Saturday and Sunday. “Blood was shed in Canada because of the differences in denominations. What people believed at that time was a statement. They felt their salvation depended on choosing the right church. I’m sure it was a split vote (to allow the other denominations to worship in their sanctuary).”

The Presbyterian church has its roots in Scottish and Irish immigrants coming to New Westminster in 1862. Its first physical building was 321 Carnarvon St., which was constructed in 1863. It now serves as a church hall for Emmanuel Pentecostal, which was built next door in 1889, and originally housed St. Andrew’s Presbyterian.

Other Presbyterian congregations popped up in the city— Knox, West End, and St. Aidan’s. It wasn’t unusual to have so many so close together in the late 19th century, when residents walked or rode horses everywhere and attending church was important on Sundays.

The original church where First Presbyterian now sits at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Seventh Street in the Brow of the Hill neighbourhood was St. Stephen’s, built in 1903. The churches were losing a lot of members in the 1940s, so St. Stephen’s amalgamated with St. Andrew’s to form First Presbyterian.

At its peak, in 1972, First had 568 members, but attendance began to dwindle because it took on a more charismatic influence where they would claim to speak in tongues and other activities that were “un-Presbyterian” alienating some of the long-time members. With that, and a broader shift in Canada, the parish now has 122 members.

These days First has experienced a boost thanks to ethnic diversity, particularly from the Filipino and African communities, says Bruneau. The challenge facing First is to retain enough traditional elements so long-time parishioners remain comfortable while allowing for the multicultural diversity to feel welcome and expand the congregation.

“Right now it’s very good for our church. The Presbyterian Church was traditionally meant for those of British descent—Scottish and Irish. But the Presbyterian churches that are flourishing today, welcome diversity and different kinds of music,” says Bruneau. “Things seem to be going in a good direction.”

The 150th anniversary celebrations will begin on Saturday (March 10) at Emmanuel Pentacostal starting at 10 a.m. with a prayer meeting and tour of the historic site. An open house at First Presbyterian starts at 4 p.m. followed by a banquet that will have local historian Archie Miller as one of the speakers. Sunday’s worship service at 10:30 a.m. will involve several former ministers including Cal Chambers, who participated in the 100th anniversary.

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