Touring Montreal

We woke late. Had it not been for Allen returning from the office to prepare for Sunday service, I would might have slept entirely though my only chance to actually see him in action. It wasn’t the service that interests me — it was seeing Allen doing his thing. If it hadn’t been for him returning to the apartment, causing a ruckus loud enough to wake the dead (which we almost were), we’d have slept right through everything. Thankfully, we woke with about 45 minutes to spare, forcing a hurried dressing.

Knox Crescent Kensington & First Presbyterian church sits at the opposite end of Godfrey St. from Allen’s apartment. It takes only a few minutes to walk that distance — Godfrey is only four blocks long. The neighbourhood is wonderful to walk through, with its old duplex and triplex buildings, some attached and semi-detached houses, and huge trees that have witnessed countless hundreds of seasons and countless people walking under them. Like the trees south of Montreal, these have yet to sprout their leaves (though some are trying as hard as they can).

KCKF is a collection of three buildings. The original Kensington Church, a hall built about 20 years later, and the massive prayer building erected in the late 1940s. The church itself has a long, sordid history of mergings and separations, leading to the existing church community that exists today. I’d try to recover the entire tree, but it was confusing to see the map and be guided through it by two kind gentleman trying to explain it, let alone try to remember the path and explain it again. The same pattern is repeated through many churches in Montreal and across Canada, as various congregations merge to keep their communities alive. Although most Canadians might report that they are religious, many of them are not practicing, so the communities and edifices that would normally represent them are disappearing.

Such is the case with KCKF. The prayer hall can seat over 800. The most Allen has seen in his tenure here (now over a year) is about a tenth of that. Today, we barely got to 50 people. Massive churches were not meant for so few people. Only 15 years after the new hall was built, attendance started to decline, and it hasn’t stopped. Although many of the congregation do not want the church to close, this is what Allen is recommending. The building is too expensive to operate and needs many repairs, and the money isn’t there. Many attach themselves to the building however, which makes it hard to do what has to be done. Despite the fact that the people are what make a church a community, the building is seen as too much of an important factor to sway opinion. These are challenges that are often hard to overcome.

Stained glass, Knox Crescent Kensington & First Presbyterian church, Montreal, Quebec, 23 April 2006

The prayer hall was built at the tail end of the gothic era of church building. A few of the key elements in a good gothic church — vaulted ceilings with arched supports, real stained glass windows (instead of painted glass), and a large altar area — are present in KCK’s hall. However, there are a number of more “modern” elements such as industrial lighting and fibreboard ceilings that seem to detract a bit. The fibreboard is also waterstained, a sure sign of needed repairs.

Seating near the front of the pews, we had a good view of the “stage” where the service would be conducted. Lynn was also there, functioning as the Outreach Minister. She was chatting with several others in the assembled congregation. Being “Low Sunday” (the Sunday after Easter), the assembly was even lower than usual. I can only imagine how hard it much be for ministers on those days. There’s hardly anyone there — is it a good use of your time and a potentially great sermon? But that’s not your call — you have to do your job.

Allen marched out of a door to the left of the altar, dressed in his ceremonial robes. Each sleeve of the flowing black gown bore three black chevrons bordered in red. Apparently, these show Allen’s doctorate in Ministry, which he obtained shortly after Alex and I met. (I had told myself that the first time I met him I would call Allen “Rev. Dr.” as a form of respect. But he beat me to the punch, caught off-guard when I returned from a conference in San Jose, defeating my plan.)

The music — a much larger organ than Knox Presbyterian’s in Calgary — burst to life, followed by the choir who slowly walked up the aisle. A different approach, and I saw the reason why. With so few members in such a large space, you had to make sure people would engage themselves in singing. (Which, as I realized at the same time, is why choirs exist — to help encourage people to sing and lead the group as a whole.) A sad irony of KCK’s choir was that they have to hire professional singers. Which explains the professional-looking men in the back. I certainly understand the reasoning, even if it does seem a little desperate.

Allen started at the back, with the traditional opening to a Presbyterian service. Normally, a good congregation will answer the minister’s opening with “And Peace be with you”, though I could barely hear anyone else. Allen must have had a similar problem as he immediately said: “Let’s try that again” and repeated the opening. Then he walked up the aisle and took his place at the altar to begin.

Initially, I didn’t think he’d be doing much in the service, as Lynn seemed to be doing much more. In particular was the children’s segment, where Lynn tried to teach the children that if humans kept taking up all the space on Earth with our stuff and (most important) our waste that there won’t be enough room for trees, birds, and animals. Lynn did not elaborate that unless we changed we would ulimately be harming the human race by killing off all the birds, trees, and animals.

The Presbyterian Church is an interesting group. I don’t know if the entire Church is like this across Canada, but certainly Allen and Lynn are, and most of the other Presbyterian ministers that I’ve met. Allen’s almost rabid about environmentalism. His house is greener than most, and he’s certainly inspiring to listen to about trying to be even greener. The desire to be green even goes so far as to encourage the purchase of Fair Trade coffee, and do to away with sytrofoam cups — everyone was encouraged to bring in a mug.

I’m told the children’s segments tend to scare others. They don’t see the status quo, perhaps, and the focus on another group is something different. Different is uncomfortable, even if necessary. During Allen’s sermon (which was quite long, but well written; he really needs to write a book), he told a story where his friend Glynnis once saw a never-ending flow of children enter a church. The point, of course, is that the church needs to look not as its current membership, but it’s newer members to make changes and set the direction for the future. The church is dying amongst white Canada, and without new blood the organism itself will die. (Okay, my paraphrasing, but I assume I’m not far off.)

It’s funny — I sit in my job, listening and talking daily about the online communities that bring together many people from many different backgrounds to form a specific group. The Flickrs, the Del.icio.uses, the mailing lists, and the MySpaces. They were all predated by the churches. Certainly they were more geographically-limited (online communities have restrictions, but they are more self-imposed than their ability to reach others). I find it interesting how the human race manages to reinvent things such as community over a period of time.

Rev. Dr. Allen Aicken, Knox Crescent Kensington & First Presbyterian church, Montreal, Quebec, 23 April 2006

With the service over, we stuck around a while to engage in the post-service activities, namely coffee. I still don’t drink the stuff, but Allen needs to be present as the church minister. That gave me time to take pictures in the prayer hall and about. It’s a truly wonderful space. The coffee period didn’t last long, though, and we were soon on our way back to the apartment. Allen disrobed and acquired something more comfortable, and the three of us headed out to Chinatown.

I love trains. If you’ve ever read these journals with any regularity, you know that. However, there are limits. Montreal has a great subway system. Far better and more extensive than Toronto’s. You’d think Canada’s largest city would address that issue, but they haven’t really figured that out yet. Montreal wins, hands down, the public transit award for me. But what I don’t really like is the Metro. I like how well it works and its basic planning, I just don’t like how it’s implemented. If you’ve never been there, it’s on tires. Rubber tires. It’s like a series of automobiles all strung together. They run fast, but are noisy and bounce around a lot. Some say it’s a better ride, but I can say with a great deal of confidence that I’ll take a steel wheel-on-rail version any day.

The goal was to meet up with Therese and Stuart for Dim Sum, something I haven’t had for a while (especially with them), let alone in Montreal. The Montreal public transit system is quite good, and a short bus ride to the Metro had us at Furama (which Stuart refers to as “Futurama”, for no reason other than it sounds funnier) a few minutes ahead of our scheduled arrival. Stuart, Therese, and a sound-asleep Allison arrived about 20 minutes later.

No ginger beef (a Calgary-only specialty) and a few different approaches on familiar dishes were a change, but the overall meal was quite good. I certainly had little to complain about, as the food was still excellent quality. Allison was a little grumpy when she woke up, though. When we were all done, we headed down to the lobby (after fighting over the bill; if Therese can’t move fast enough to grab it from me, that’s not my problem — I love being stubborn) and headed our separate ways. I’m not sure when I’ll see them again, but hopefully it won’t be too long. Like I said, I don’t get to see my friends often enough. And good friends are hard to find.

The rain had let up a little bit, so walking down to Notre Dame wasn’t too bad. I had thought we’d go inside, but apparently the goal was just to see the cathedral. So off we headed to the Metro and back to the Benny apartment. The stop was short-lived as we then headed out for Mont Royal and a little walk-about.

We “detoured” at Second Cup. I’m not exactly how we got onto that topic, but the apparent need for a chai tea was overwhelming. I still miss Chanticos, and regular hot chocolate just doesn’t cut it for me at all these days. If it’s not the good stuff, it’s just not worth it. I’m going to have to switch to tea, I know it. The detour was extended to acquire sugar pie, which I’ve never actually had before. The pie ended up being a maple sugar pie, which was even more appealing in the long run.

The trip up to Mont Royal suggested that we were going to have some difficulty with staying dry.

The rain had picked up significantly. But rain is just water, and unless you happen to be the Tin Man or the Wicked Witch of the West, there’s little to fear. The walk up and down the hill to the look out was quite pleasant, though damp. And I spend most of the time looking down at the sidewalk as not to smuck the worms scattered about trying to breathe. I have nothing against worms, and do my best not to step on them.

The view over Montreal was expectedly cloudy and you couldn’t see very far. The last time I saw that view was in 1993, with my friends James, Kathryn, and Chris. The view had been much nicer then, as the rain hadn’t been an issue. I could barely see across the river, let alone the mountains in the distance. Perhaps next time I’m out…

My memory of the last time on mountain is fuzzy. I remember climbing in shorts on the melting snow. I remember laughing myself silly when it went up to my knees (it’s not the only time that’s happened, incidentally). I remember Kathryn doubled over when I told her the story of how Mom and Cathy had thought I was gay. I remember introducing James to St. Joseph’s Oratory. What I didn’t remember was the distance between the lookout and the Oratory. I’d remembered it being much closer. It worries me a bit, since I wonder how much else I’ve forgotten.

By the time I got back to the car, I was soaked. Thoroughly. But the joys of traveling pants — they dry very quickly. By the time we’d gotten down the mountain, passed by the Royal Victoria Hospital, and returned to the Benny apartment, most of the pants had dried. There I acquired all the fixings for a spaghetti primavera (with chicken) … and realized that my trusty traveling pants had developed a massive hole in the arse, just under the left butt cheek. How and where, I have no idea. But the pants were dead. I need to buy replacements tomorrow, lest my sole remaining pair of pants meet a similar fate, rendering me pantless.

Dinner was wonderful, and the pie was borderline lethal. We watched “Fargo”, Allen giggling like a little kid throughout the movie. For a minister, he has a really dark sense of humour. Must be why I like him so much. Tomorrow we meet up with Glynnis for breakfast, and fly out to London. As much as I like Montreal, I really want to get on with this trip.