Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Islander Church

The Borders Regional Ministry
top left: St. Thomas, Noyan; top right: St. George, Clarenceville
bottom: St. Luke, Alburgh
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Alburgh, VT boasts one of the most uniquely quirky characters of all the parishes in our diocese. It is part of The Borders Regional Ministry in cooperation with St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Noyan, and St. George’s Church in Clarenceville, both in the Province of Quebec.  It is also part of the islands community of Lake Champlain, which offers its own inimitable sense of identity. Being interwoven in the fabric of these two dynamic cultures provides St. Luke’s Church with charm and allure that is a special gift to this diocese.

part of the Chazy Reef on Isle La Motte

In the middle of Lake Champlain lies an emerald green archipelago that until fairly recently in its history could only be reached by boat. These are geologically ancient islands. The Chazy Reef on Isle La Motte, part of rock formation stretching from Newfoundland to Tennessee, is recognized as the world’s oldest reef, exposing underwater fossils some 480 million years old. The sense of timelessness in the Champlain Islands is substantiated by its human history of the last three or four hundred years. Prior to Samuel de Champlain’s introduction of the first Europeans in 1609, the islands provided for the summer villages of Abenaki, Huron and other local tribes.  The lake allowed for year-round living, but archaeological evidence indicates that it was rare for a village to stay year-round on the islands—probably due to the lack of hunting game which was so much more prevalent on either shore of the lake. Once the French arrived with the Champlain exploration, very little time passed before Europeans built fortifications and permanent residences on the islands. Some of the founding families still make up the core of the community. 
Lake Champlain
The islands played key roles during both the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, serving as both battleground and hospital. Yet, during both these wars, the islanders themselves tended to keep their distance and watch from afar.  Like gems embedded in the hilt of a silver dagger, several large islands make up the Champlain Island Community: Isle La Motte, North Hero, South Hero, Grand Isle, Crab and Valcour Islands, and the Alburgh Peninsula.  While the peninsula is not an island, it extends into the heart of the island community and maintains that “islander” characteristic. The particular “islander” characteristic in question is defined by its people’s tenacious independence predicated upon their relative isolation. In spite of the bridges and causeways that now connect the islands with a scenic drive, the ideal of being accessible only by water prevails.  This makes for a community of people who become either determinedly resourceful or resigned to doing without. This you can see reflected in the congregations of the Borders Regional Ministry as it exists today.

The current manifestation of the Borders Regional Ministry has its roots in earlier versions. In spite of what we learned about border ministries from St. Paul’s, Canaan several weeks ago, the concept of a share ministry between two countries is not immediately perceived as a logical one!  However, the history of this one includes a somewhat historically fluid border, and in the past, Alburgh was actually a part of Canada. Around the end of the 18th century, the Richelieu Valley region and the upper part of Lake Champlain became a settling ground for British Loyalists, and the need for English language worship services grew. The communities were mostly farming and thus were widespread.  In 1815, congregations in Noyan and in Clarenceville combined their resources to pay for a minister with the stipulation that worship services alternate between the two communities.  To this day, worship is held on the first and third Sundays in Clarenceville and second and fourth Sundays in Noyan—thus the first bonds of mutual ministry were established. 

images from St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Alburgh, VT
Meanwhile, the congregation in Alburgh, just down the road a few miles, flickered in and out of existence several times before becoming an established presence in the early part of the 20th century.  Bishop Hall consecrated St. Luke’s Church in 1907.  The church was sustained by itinerant clergy from Burlington who traveled by rail to provide services at St. Luke’s.  Even though Alburgh is accessible overland, its border with Canada cut the land off from the rest of Vermont so that it essentially became like the other Champlain Isles—accessible only by boat or train.  When the road was opened in 1933, St. Luke’s was then serviced by ministers from Swanton. Because of its proximity to St. George and St. Thomas, many of the St. Luke’s congregation already interacted and worship with those congregations, so the ties between the three congregations was already solidly established.  In the early years of the 21st century, a group of lay leaders from the three congregations along with other congregations in Bedford began to work on developing a Borders Regional Ministry that would serve six congregations in both Quebec and Vermont. A celebration Eucharist was celebrated in 2006 with both Vermont’s bishop and the Bishop of Montreal presiding.  But the formation of the ministry was never stabilized and the congregation of Bedford and two others left the Borders Regional Ministry leaving the original three to maintain its ministry.  Today, the congregations support one another and have become settled into a routine of their mutual ministry.

Because of its history both as a church and as part of its community, it is virtually impossible to talk about St. Luke’s without mention of the islands or the other churches in the Borders Regional Ministry.  Those two elements make the deep, rich color of the character of St. Luke’s.  The Sunday I visited the church, the congregation consisted of long-time members of St. Luke’s plus others from both Clarenceville and Noyan.  The conversation during fellowship focused on pastoral care issues particular to the islands (a piece of property on Isle La Motte is being offered to St. Luke’s and ideas for how best to use it were shared; members of the congregation struggle with issues that make it hard to attend worship services; that kind of thing). And often at St. Luke’s fellowship takes the form of lunch at a nearby restaurant or at the Alburgh Golf Club. When you cross the bridge into Grand Isle County, and when you visit St. Luke’s Church in Alburgh, you become immediately immersed in the island character. It is special and uniquely Spiritual.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks, Wendy -- we enjoyed your visit with us. We didn't speak clearly about the property on Isle La Motte -- the income from the sale of that property was left to St. Luke's and is invested in the Diocesan Unit Fund. How we use the income from that bequest was part of our conversation.