A small Ontario town welcomed this Egyptian immigrant. Now he’s buying its church — to save it

posted on December 26, 2018

By Toronto Star |

Joseph was broken; ditto for one of the wise men. Storage had been hard on the nativity scene.

“I had my husband glue the heads back on,” says Tracey Cooper in amid a scramble to get ready for an unexpected Christmas Eve service. “It’s not going to be perfect, and you know what, that’s OK.”

Out of another box came the Advent wreath. Then the candles, battery operated just to be safe, as Cooper and her friends decorated the church sanctuary. A tree? They found one tucked away in the darkness, set it up near the pulpit and gave it life with a festive mishmash of artificial poinsettia leaves and silver garlands. They were trying to create a certain ambiance.

“We want warm and welcoming,” says Cooper. “It’s a new era, that’s what we’re going for.”

If urgency can be joyous, that’s what is unfolding on the main street of this village north of London.

In an astonishing reversal, Hensall United Church, officially shuttered in November, has been saved — imbued with new life just in time for Christmas by an Egyptian immigrant’s spirit of giving.

At a time when rural congregations are shrinking and small-town churches are closing — the United Church of Canada alone has been losing seven a year in southwestern Ontario recently — Hensall has a saviour in its midst, an improbable one at that.

The 131-year-old Protestant church, in a community not known for its diversity, is being resurrected by a Roman Catholic from the Middle East.

Michael Haddad, the town’s pharmacist for the last eight years, stepped forward to purchase the building. That he will reopen it as place of worship makes this an unusual story of rebirth.

It’s not rare for a church to be sold. They are then typically retrofitted for another use or torn down for the land. Rev. Tom Dunbar, a United Church minister from nearby Mitchell helping navigate the sale, says he’s never heard of an individual buying a church to keep it as a church.

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