Surrey’s historic Colebrook United Church, founded in 1947, is giving up the ghost.
The heritage Christian church at 5441 125A Street, beside Joe Brown Park in Panorama Ridge, will have its last service on Sunday, Oct. 27 as the result of a changing neighbourhood demographic and dwindling congregation.
Judith Moody, a member at large on the church’s council, says the aging membership now consists of roughly 60 or 70 people, when in its heyday there were about 200 worshippers.
“We had to put it up for sale, and there came a bidding war between the Sikh community and the Muslim community, so the price went up about $1 million, so that’s going to do a lot of good for First Nations United churches and the big thing, low-rental housing in the Lower Mainland through the United Church,” said Moody, who also serves on the worship committee and has been with the church for five years. “They (United Church of Canada) have properties and they are in the process of trying to establish low rental housing.”
So who won the bidding war?
“The Muslims. It’s not going to be a church, per se, it’s going to be a study centre for them. But they are thrilled that they are going into a building of lovely people, devout people who worship the Creator.”
The Al-Mustafa Academy Society is expected to take possession in early November. What will become of Colebrook’s Christian congregation?
“It’s sad but we’re not going to stop being Christian people,” Moody said.
They will likely disperse to other United Churches in Surrey, Langley and North Delta, such as Bethany-Newton United, Crossroads United on Scott Road, Northwood United in Fleetwood and Cloverdale United.
“There’s half a dozen of them around. A lot of United churches are amalgamating because it’s expensive to keep a church going.
“Some people were furious that we’re going to close their church,” Moody said.
“Other people are sad – very, very sad – because they have long-term friendships, they’ve worked hard together to do good things. We have a daycare centre on one side of the building and we have all kinds of things happening there, yoga and pickleball and sometimes we have all-candidates meetings.”
After Oct. 27, she says, “that’s it.”
In the meantime, church members are making a memories book to submit to Surrey Archives, given the historical importance of the church, with its spectacular stained glass windows.
Ken Cooper, the chairman of the church’s trustees, says the new owners “are thrilled” with their purchase.
“They’ve been looking for a place that has a religious history. They will eventually turn it into their place of worship.”
What will happen to the Christian-themed stained glass windows?
“That’s from the original sanctuary, so that goes back to 1947,” says Cooper, who was born that same year.
“That was above the communion table. That is a problem for them because all of the stained glass is a part of the heritage designation. So whether they will either plexiglass over with gels glass that sort of cuts the image, whether they’ll put sheer drapes or what, we’re not quite sure. They would have to negotiate with the city to make any changes to the heritage designation.”
“The cross will come down.”
Though this incarnation of Colebrook United Church was founded in 1947, its roots date back to 1919 when its first congregation worshiped in a community hall that was located across the street, where Colebrook Elementary school is today.
Reverend Dale Johnson, the 17th minister to serve this church, is retiring. Cooper said Reverend Johnson had been thinking of doing so but came to the church on a part-time basis “with the understanding that he would help us through this period.”
Cooper and his family have attended Colebrook United Church for about 30 years. His daughter Elizabeth had her wedding in the church, and his grandchildren were baptized and confirmed there.
“Probably the average age is mid to late 70s,” he says of the outgoing congregation. “And that was the dilemma. We don’t have the young families and as we age, we have less energy, there’s fewer of us.
“The young families just can’t afford to live in the neighbourhood.”
The last service, Cooper says, “will be a tear-jerker.”
It will be followed by a catered lunch for the members, “so we can all have a chance to say goodbye.”
“It’s hard for all of us,” he said. “Closing was the only feasible option for us. It was not a happy decision, but it was the necessary decision.
“This whole neighbourhood has evolved. It was single-family homes, from a sort-of traditional WASP background, I guess you would call it. Over time, that has changed – it’s become much more multi-ethnic.”
Beside the church, there’s a memorial garden where congregation members have sprinkled their loved ones’ ashes. The daycare centre around back, Cooper says, will remain.
“They have taken on a new lease with the society.”
Cooper said he will miss “the people” most of all. “Our kids grew up here, our grandkids come here. We’ll miss that.”
Despite the change in ownership, he says, when he drives by in future, he’ll still think of it as “our church.”
“Happy memories will survive.”