Montreal Church Seeks 'Market Niche': Traditional Anglo-Catholic Parish Seeks to Be Vibrant

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Editor's note: This is the first of a new series profiling some of the church's many fascinating, famous and historical parishes across the country.

St. John the Evangelist Montreal

When Douglass Dalton -- full of enthusiasm about an Anglican church he'd found -- convinced a fellow student to accompany him one Sunday, he hoped she might experience the same mystical sense of holiness that he had.

The ancient music, vestments heavy with embroidery, genuflections and use of incense drew him instantly. His friend had an equally strong initial reaction. After the service, she vomited.

Known familiarly in Montreal as the Red Roof, St. John the Evangelist Church founded the Anglo-Catholic tradition in Canada when it opened in 1861. Ground-breaking is tough business, and founder Rev. Edmund Wood would not have been deterred by the extreme reaction of Mr. Dalton's friend.

Mr. Wood sustained worse censure during his 48-year tenure; he was called "heretic" and was described as satanic in synod. Yet he never backed down from his beliefs.

St. John's is an unlikely survivor. The church has withstood a veritable onslaught.

Surrounding tenements -- whose residents formed the basis of the congregation -- were razed to make way for a university in the 1960s. St. John's did its best to gather up parishioners from nearby churches forced shut as the city sprawled, and began a new vocation as a downtown parish.

Its first liturgical challenge since Mr. Wood came at the same time. Churches made deep changes to try and keep young people. St. John's led the way. "I left for three years because of it," said rector's warden Ted Hall.

The core congregation that had remained loyal through other upheavals dwindled away. Their message was heard, traditional services were restored.

But in the 1970s St. John's was hit twice; by the anglophone exodus from Quebec and a smaller exodus of Anglicans when the church ordained women.

The congregation was bolstered, however, by Roman Catholics upset with their own church's reforms. "There are French people who seem to be attracted," said people's warden Peter McNally. "It's a market niche."

Peter Harper, a francophone and self-described Roman Catholic in exile, attended a concert at St. John's one evening.

"I went to church the next day, and have kept coming ever since," he said. "I realized it was quite in the Catholic tradition, so I could feel quite at home there but it was not as structured. It was more free; things could be discussed."

The latest upheaval at St. …