It has been a life-changing experience for retired Rev. Dr. Linda Marcotte and her husband Ari Snyder in their move north to head the Yellowknife United Church.
In October 2018, Peter Chynoweth, who had been minister for 13 years, gave his last sermon and stepped down. For over a year and a half, the church had been looking for someone full-time to fill the spot.
The couple, both over 70, made the journey to the NWT last August with their dog Bono from Saint John, N.B. Over the past few months, they have grown accustomed to their surroundings.
“I was just really, really surprised when they invited me to come up in September of last year,” Marcotte said. “First of all, we had to figure out what to do in Saint John with our house, and our car wasn't good. We also had the dog and our 65-year old piano to move.”
In March 2020, churches in Yellowknife shut down due to Covid-19. The United Church didn’t reopen until Sept. 6.
The pandemic has been especially hard on places of worship, given their dependency on large groups, musical expression and other types of physical contact. With dwindling numbers, Marcotte admitted she's worried about the long-term impacts among church-goers and the extent to which people will ever come back.
Currently there are about 100 people in the Yellowknife congregation, but active members who attend services are somewhere between 25 and 30, she said.
There can also be further challenges with attendance as some members like to use their weekends to go to their cabins because people deeply respect being on the land.
The church has held Zoom services during the pandemic to accommodate members.
“It's very difficult to have a congregation that feels safe enough to come into crowds and we have a limitation of 50 people in the auditorium,” Marcotte said.
“Our concern, when I speak with my colleagues, is what's going to happen after Covid? People have gotten out of the habit of going to church. All denominations are in decline anyway, but the question is what's going to happen if we ever get back to what they call normal.”
In some ways this has led to a tighter bond between herself and other church leaders in the community. She's joined with the Yellowknife Ministerial Association, which comprises all church leaders in the city, who meet monthly.
As the newest member, she will be responsible for presiding over the Easter Sunday sunrise service on Pilot's Monument.
In other ways, however, people have grown more dependent on the church.
Marcotte and Snyder said they were both impressed with attendance of people who, due to the inability to travel during the pandemic, came to rely on the church over the Christmas holidays. This was especially true of the annual Comfort Service held on Dec. 17, headed by the Church Laity.
The United Church often holds these services – in other denominations known as Blue Christmas – during the holiday season to bring comfort to families grieving lost loved ones.
"Normally, it's attended by people who have had someone die ... but because of Covid, a lot of people were grieving in not being able to see their children or their grandchildren in the south," said Marcotte. "It was a beautiful service.”
In addtion, the Yellowknife United Church has been characterized as a denomination that advocates for social justice, openly welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Christian and Jewish unity
Marcotte and Snyder express newfound happiness in their later years since meeting in 2015. He was a widower and resided in the Eastern Townships of Quebec while she had been without a partner for 38 years.
Both had experienced the loss of close family members and they came together in the amid grief. They ended up getting married twice: once under Jewish religious law and once in an interfaith marriage. They both continue to share in each other's traditions, which makes weekends extra special, they say.
“Ari is Jewish and, of course, I'm a Christian minister, so that has brought a lot of smiles to people up here," Marcotte said. "And we do so celebrate the sabbath every Friday night and Saturday. Our sabbath starts at sunset on Friday and it ends at sunset on Sunday, so we're really doing the whole weekend, and we have a good time doing that.”
Marcotte said her main concern in making such a life-altering move north was in how Snyder would adjust.
"But I've connected like with a home run, it was just fantastic," Snyder said.
Being associated with the arts and music scene in Montreal as a concert pianist and appearing in theatre and film, he has made new connections in the community.
On the Sunday following Christmas, he held a concert at the church while mindful of Covid public health restrictions.
"We're allowed to hum and we have to wear a mask right, and we're allowed to have a single person at a time to sing," Snyder said. "I did piano versions of a bunch of carols and hymns, and Christmas-themed and winter-themed material."
He also played during a Songs to Make You Swoon concert with soprano Susan Shantora on Feb. 7. And he's set to perform on keyboards for the upcoming Vivaldi's The Four Seasons: A Northern Reflection by the Borderless Art Movement (BAM), conducted by Joe Pamplin.
He has also been providing mentor services to the Yellowknife Music Festival.