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Open letter (and answer – by Talvi Maimets) Reflections on St. Peter’s Church

Covid has been a burden to all of us but finally, on a crisp fall Sunday with a cloudless sky, I was excited to set off to hear live music. Although I had enjoyed an online streamed concert the night before, thanks to Estonian Music Week, this music would be of a more spiritual nature.

As I drove through sparse traffic, only found in Toronto on a Sunday morning, I made my way to a familiar place. I walked through the doors to an inviting, comforting sanctuary with the sun spilling onto the many wood covered surfaces. This is an incredibly unique space that I love. I was happy to see many others there, many more than I was used to seeing. That was because this was a special day. It was the day that my church, St. Peter’s Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto was having an extraordinary service. It was a celebration of joining the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. It was also to be followed by an annual general meeting (AGM) of the church congregation.

The high turnout shows the interest in the church which many people still feel a personal affinity and interest towards. Before moving onto the AGM there was the service to enjoy. Serving was the Bishop of the ELCIC Eastern Synod, Dr. Michael J. Pryse as well as the EELK Archbisop Urmas Viilma, Bishop Tiit Salumäe, our church’s minister Dean Mart Salumäe as well as Rev. Kalle Kadakas from St. Andrew’s Church.

The music of this service was at the forefront. We were blessed that the choir from the Estonian Haapsalu Cathedral performed in a Covid safe way behind a see-through plastic curtain while all wearing face shields. Our own minister, with his great voice, joined them. This was a high quality choir that sang many beautiful moving pieces acapella. One especially interesting song was supplemented by the singers imitating different birds.

Marta Kivik, our church organist, was joined by a previous organist, now with her PhD, Dr. Hanne Becker. Her amazing performance of a Bach piece was unparalleled.

The liturgical part of the service was easily followed along in the written program that was both in Estonian on one page and English on the facing page. This is something I would like to see more of in the future as we make the church more welcoming to those who find it easier to take part in English. The sermon was delivered by the Canadian bishop who was incredibly warm and welcoming. What I got out of his words was how we should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We each have gifts to improve the world. Don’t focus so much on the negative but rather the positive influence we can have.

We can take that thought to the predicament we are faced with by our own congregation. The AGM meeting went smoothly. The church council was chosen and the previous executive was voted in for another term. The executive was voted on by the entire congregation rather than what I understand in the past was by a vote of the council members. This can be seen as even a more democratic process now that all members have a say.

Our minister, Dean Salumäe, has taken extraordinary steps to continue to serve the congregation during the pandemic both virtually and with a number of in person services at the church as well as retirement homes when possible. These have been supplemented with offering communion in the home and articles online and in the newspaper.

The previous executive have been focused on the looming problem of declining revenues for the church, something that will soon have a great impact once the Salvation Army moves out of the church when the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is complete. The documents that were provided to the congregation laid it out in black and white that once they move out, the reserve funds will begin to dry up quite quickly. The expenditures of the church are mostly a fixed cost and in my view are reasonable and not something where much savings can be found. The returns on investments have been low in my view but are understandable given the limited investments the church can make as a charitable organization.

So the biggest question that has caused stress for the community is the suggestion that the church building be sold. It was not actually talked about much at the meeting, but the documents supplied to the congregation clearly show that the church is at risk of running out of funds around 2025. This is why the executive has already started exploring options. I think it is up to the re-elected executive to clarify what options are being considered and to solicit ideas for saving the church from being sold soon. I am optimistic that a solution can be found. Not all hope is lost.

The church building with its immensely beautiful sanctuary is of utmost importance to many. If it were to be sold and the congregation to move somewhere else, I fear the numbers will fall even further and there is a possibility that not only the church building will no longer exist but that the congregation itself will have to disband. In the eventuality that the entire church building can’t be saved I would emphasize that everything be done to try and at least save the sanctuary. How we do that is up to the individuals in the congregation and others in the community who feel this is a worthy endeavor.

A previous recent plea to the community met with limited success but I fear with all the talk of the church’s demise that there was a lot of hesitancy to support the cause.  I’m worried that some people may be thinking “Why give money to something that some predict is doomed anyway”. To counter this I urge the executive to come out and say that they are willing to explore all possibilities and that the sale is not fait accompli. A focused fund-raising endeavor with a clear goal of saving the church for at least a specified period of time is essential.

It was communicated that there are 1024 households as members of record with 24% of them donating. The average donation is $367. This amount could possibly be greatly increased. There are religious congregations that require a certain amount of donations, in effect a membership fee. We have no such thing but instead rely on voluntary contributions – and so it should be. But what if we had households pledge an amount that could be relied on to keep afloat for a defined amount of time? As time has gone on and my household has less financial stress, now that my children have finished university, what if I pledged a thousand dollars a year for the next five years? This along with a social contract from the executive that, if they could get enough people to pledge amounts that could be relied on, they would in turn pledge to keep the church building for a specified amount of time. One hundred families pledging 20 dollars a week would offset the loss of the Salvation Army. If others would also continue to support the church we would no longer run a deficit- or at least a small enough of one to keep running well past 2025. Ideally we need to have a stable and reliable source of donations going forward.

I urge the executive to continue to be transparent and make it clear that no deals are being made with KESKUS so that any rumours can be put to rest about collusion between the two organizations. This will make it more likely that the church can attract financial support. Even if the executive concludes that a sale of the church building is inevitable it is their duty to communicate that to the congregation and to reach a consensus. Archbishop Viilma spoke during the AGM that questioning our elected leadership is a sign of an interested and engaged congregation and that consensus building is better than division.

Also, there has been talk about joining with our fellow Lutheran congregation. If an agreement can be reached that serves both congregations, that needs to be explored.

I urge that ideas for saving the church building and especially the sanctuary be brought forward, publicly and to the executive, so that they may be considered. Let us be positive, like the salt of the earth. Let us be the light of the world in which our congregation shares its faith in our spiritual home.

Arnold Tralla, Toronto

A Friendly and Respectful Response to Arnold Tralla’s Article

I too enjoyed the special church service on Sunday, October 24 and I was uplifted and moved by Bishop Pryse’s sermon. I believe our congregation has found a welcoming home in the ELCIC and we hope to invite Bishop Pryse to our church many more times.

When Bishop Pryse exhorted us to focus on the positives rather than the negatives I found myself in some difficulty because, as a member of the Congregational Council for many years, I and the other council members have been struggling with diminished church attendance and declining funds. When, despite the efforts we had made to increase donations, the very real prospect of insolvency in the next few years became apparent, we were forced to consider selling the church. When this possibility was first tabled I felt sick. To imagine losing Peetri kirik, where I have loved to come and find some serenity in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday life, was heartbreaking. But when I took a step back, put aside my emotion and rationally analysed our financial situation, I had to agree that the time had come to consider selling. And at the General Annual Meeting last year the vote in favour of seeking buyers indicates that our congregation is also capable of making rational decisions, no matter how difficult. Counter to some, who think that this decision is premature, selling such a property is a complex endeavour and may take a few years to complete. In addition, finding a suitable new home for our congregation will take time.

I can assure our congregation and the Toronto Estonian community in general, that the Congregational Council has been entirely transparent and will continue to be. But I also heard Archbishop Viilma when he pointed out that questions to the council could and should be interpreted as showing interest, not criticism. And we will improve our efforts to do so.

We need dialogue and cooperation, not confrontation and polarization.

There is a rumour circulating, I am told, that Pastor Salumäe’s agenda is to sell the church quickly and turn over the proceeds to Eesti Keskus. This is pure, mean-spirited fantasy, and we need this to stop. We cannot prove that this is not so, because the non-existence of something is impossible to prove. Please, stop the rumours! Our Congregational Council and pastor have no relationship with Eesti Keskus and there is no communication between us.

I do applaud Mr. Trallas’s challenge to our church members to find 100 families who could pledge a $1000 donation annually. This would allow the continuation of Peetri kogudus in its present state at the present site. To grow the congregation we would require more, for example 200 families donating $1000 per year, which would allow us to hire a youth pastor, have more effective bilingual services (with simultaneous translation), do other kinds of outreach, as well as carry out better maintenance of the deteriorating infrastructure. But this funding would need to be stable and reliable year after year. I am extremely sceptical that we could get 200 families to make this commitment. In addition, the cost of replacing the bell tower cross (minimum $75000-$100,000) and repairing the leaking copper roof (minimum $1,000,000) is prohibitive. This information and our financial trajectory has led the Congregational Council to make the recommendation to our congregation to try to sell the church property. This option is being pursued. But if a credible and reliable solution is found, please note that we are under no obligation to sell the church and we can cancel the process at any time. We cannot afford to NOT pursue this avenue and consequently find ourselves in a panic when our resources have dried up.

The situation in which we find ourselves makes me very sad. Our parents and grandparents created a wonderful community for themselves and for us, their descendants. The regrettable fact is that this community has dwindled to less than the critical mass required to continue in the same way in the same places. The challenge for our generation is to downsize responsibly and continue to serve the needs of our community as best as we can.

We all have some soul-searching to do. With goodwill and God’s guidance anything is possible, so let us pull together and be the best that we can be, together.

Talvi Maimets
Council member

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