Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
— 'Be Thou My Vision', Irish hymn
Death has a funny way of bringing people together.
When my grandmother, Barbara Allaire Leete Stange, passed in September, there was a lot of debate about whether to have a small ceremony with the siblings and then a larger ceremony with more family in the summer months. It was decided to have a ceremony in Regina on Thanksgiving weekend – great timing for the Canadian relatives, but still short notice for American and relatives overseas.
A group chat was setup on Facebook and it was quickly bursting with energy with who and when people were arriving, which hotels to stay at, and any details that may need some extra help behind them to make it happen. All the siblings were going to be coming, and ten out of the fourteen grandchildren were able to attend, plus other cousins and relatives of my grandmother from Washington, Florida, Virginia, and elsewhere. I think my grandmother would have been greatly impressed with how many people were at the ceremony, and likely would have made an exclamation along the lines, “All these people came to see me?!” while she sat in the upper balcony of the church.
It was a wonderful fall afternoon in Regina that day, October 6th, 2018. I took my daughter downtown prior to the service to show her some of the spots I enjoyed going to while attending University – rather difficult nearly 20 years later and the businesses have changed. We walked through Victoria Square park towards the church an hour before the service to see the sun start to peek out behind the clouds, making the leaves that were still hanging on light up in their bright fall colours.
Walking up the steps to the church, I opened those old doors to step inside. It had been a very long time since I had gone to this church, after spending almost every Sunday in it as a kid before moving to Whitehorse. Some things about these old buildings will never change. There is a mystique about them that draws me in right away, from the wooden smell throughout the upper levels, to the way things sound in the various halls of the building. When I walked into the basement, I was walking into a hall full of memories. Sunday school, the (incredibly long) after church coffee services, but also into the waiting arms of relatives. Some I hadn’t seen in over ten years, nearly twenty with my Australian cousin, and yet, it was like we had been together our whole lives. The way family is supposed to be.
Entering the sanctuary was walking into another space of memories for me. When you have a connection to a space, and then leave it for a long time, returning to it is a powerful moment. I can’t fully explain it. You just know that you belong in that space. I walked around the pews on the outside looking at the sanctuary rising up to the ceiling, reminded myself of how large the pipe organ is, and how majestic the stained glass windows are in the church. It is magical sitting in Knox-Metropolitan United Church.
I wrote about my memories and feelings about my grandma earlier. She not only had a large impact on me, but on everyone she met in her life. As I sat in the pews of the church once again (first time in over 14 years), I listened to everyone else’s stories about her life. My cousin Peter led the service, much like our grandfather had some fifty years prior overseas, and shared glimpses into his connection with our grandma. My cousins, Maya, Laura, and Joel, all shared her favourite poems, Bible passages, and letters from people who connected with our grandma in the past. Stories were shared by her niece, Amy, and from an educational organization that my grandma was involved with.
The words, the stories, and the hymns reverberated through the sanctuary that Saturday afternoon. Hearing Be Thou My Vision sung in that church broke my heart open. I sat on an end away from people for a reason, because I knew my voice was going to crack often trying to make it through that hymn. Having her great-grandchildren stand upfront and sing Lord Listen to Your Children Praying was just an incredible moment for me.
The sun broke out shortly afterwards, shining brightly through the large stained glass windows on the southern wall painting us all in vibrant colours. And, at the end of the service, we all sat in silence. We listened to the church bells ring 94 times – one per year of her life.
It was a beautiful afternoon, one that my grandma would have loved to have seen for herself.