Somewhere in The United Church of Canada’s General Council Office (GCO) in Toronto lies a piece of the Berlin Wall.
That important piece of mortar is mentioned in two undated documents, both stating it was once shown in a display case near the reception desk. The Wall remnant was presented as a covenanting gift from the German-based Evangelical Church of the Union in 1992. While the chalice, paten, and pyx (goblet, plate, and container for consecrated bread) that were also presented as covenanting gifts are still on display, the Berlin Wall fragment is nowhere to be seen.
Those items, and hundreds more, are the subject of an inventory now ongoing at the GCO. The aim is to determine exactly what artifacts and gifts are spread over two-and-one-half floors. That inventory will then be used to help decide which items to display — and which ones to store or find new homes for — once the staff is consolidated on one floor late this summer.
“Artifacts are church assets,” says General Council Archivist Nichole Vonk. “They have immense value when you are looking at history, as they are real evidence of what has happened in the past.”
The are many varieties of artifacts, including communion sets, decorative plates, tapestries or china sets that features image of a particular church.
“Some artifacts are largely decorative, but they still give us information about what was going on at that time, she says, noting that in the 1950s, many church congregations had their own commemorative china sets.
The GCO also is home to many artifacts that relate back to the church‘s founding in 1925. Those include the table that the The Basis of Union was signed on, plus the Bible and fountain pen that were used for that important event.
“These artifacts help tell the story of pivotal moments, or denominationally shaping events, in the church’s life,” she said.
In reference to the table the Basis of Union was signed on (currently in the Moderator’s office), Vonk notes: “There are many tables that Moderators have sat at, but this is easily the most significant table.”
Vonk applauds senior managers for making the effort to inventory and preserve items in the GCO. She noted that when Woodgreen United in Toronto was sold to a developer, trustees tried to return wall hangings and other artifacts to the families who had donated them. However, the owners of some items could not be found.
When the developer put those items up for sale online, Vonk said her office received numerous complaints from people who felt that selling church artifacts was disrespectful
“I can understand that, as we really get attached to our artifacts,” she says. “They are tangible evidence of past relationships.”
Since all churches have artifacts of various types, the church’s Archives and History Committee is working on an artifact protocol, to help guide congregations in their decisions on what to do with the items. The General Council Archives can only consider artifacts of national importance.
Here’s a partial list of items on the GCO artifacts inventory:
- A vibrantly coloured painting titled The Meeting of the Eagle and the Dove. Created by Indigenous artist Mervin Meekis and presented to the 32st General Council in 1986 during the consideration of the Apology to First Nations. At close range, the eagle appears dominant; from a distance, the dove commands more attention.
- A porthole from the M.V. Thomas Crosby V, a church mission boat that plied the waters off of British Columbia for 21 years. An inscription on it reads: “Presented to Rev. Gordon Taylor by the Captain and Crew of the M.V. Thomas Crosby V and the Central Mainland Marine Mission. This porthole was salvaged from the engine room door of the Thomas Crosby V during the 1988 refit. It served the ship steadfastly for 21 years. May it faithfully remind you of your service to the ship. God bless.”Credit:Paul Russell
- In a box in the Aboriginal Ministries area lies a broken chalice, wrapped in white fur. When staff members arranged for worship materials to be shipped to a 2008 Living into Right Relations event, this pottery chalice arrived in three broken pieces. Participants at the event began to see the broken chalice as an important symbol, reflecting the broken relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in our church and land.
- A plate Anglican theologian John Wesley ate from. Vonk noted that sometimes ordinary objects can be considered artifacts if they are attached to “a person of significance.”
- Three gavels. Two have plaques: one notes it is from the Dominion board of Women's Missionary Society (a forerunner to the UCW); the second is from the Foreign Missions unit of the church. The third — made from three different types of wood — is unmarked, but former Moderator Lois Wilson recognized it as the gavel she was given when she took office in 1980. She explained the wood from the one end of the gavel represented the Presbyterians, the wood at the other end represents the Methodists, and the stem represents the Congregationalists. “At the time, it was a symbol of office, a reminder of our history, and a useful tool for moderating meetings,” Wilson noted in a letter.Credit:Paul Russell
- The origin of the grandfather clock currently on the second floor remains a mystery. Daniel Benson — a former communications manager for the GCO and a practising horologist (clockmaker) — said the clock came from the former GCO location on St. Clair Avenue. When Benson arrived at the current office at 3250 Bloor Street West in 2006, the clock wasn’t working, so he rebuilt it and got it chiming again (provided someone winds it every week). He said the clock is of German origin and was manufactured sometime around the mid-20th century, “so it's not fabulously old.” He also wondered if the case had been badly damaged at some point and then repaired, or if it is “homemade, since there are a number of features which are not as refined as one usually finds on German-made cases.”
—Paul Russell is Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Moderator and General Secretary.