Not long ago, some Anglican Church Women (ACW) members in the diocese of New Westminster began to doubt the value of their Northern Bales program, which has seen large packages of mostly used clothing shipped north to help the needy in Yukon every year since the late 1940s.
“We began to wonder—do they really want us to continue this project after all these years? Or is this becoming somewhat passé, but they don’t know quite how to say, ‘Don’t send it any more’?” says Margaret Warwick, diocese of New Westminster ACW president.
It seems they needn’t have worried. On holiday in the Yukon, former ACW president Sheila Puls decided to stop by at some of the communities that received the bales—and got a reception, Warwick says, that left her feeling overwhelmed.
“When she identified herself as ACW from the diocese of New Westminster, it was like the long-lost family member had come home—there were hugs and kisses, and cheers,” she says.
In other communities, Puls discovered, the arrival of the bales from the South is so eagerly anticipated that no one is allowed to open a bale until everyone is present.
“It certainly made us feel that our work is worthwhile,” Warwick says.
Currently the ACW of the diocese sends roughly 75 bales of warm clothing and bedding, three times a year, to northern parishes, Warwick says. The crates are shipped to Whitehorse by trucking company Canadian Freightways, which, since the program began, has charged the ACW half price, amounting to an annual savings of roughly $2,300, she says. Receiving parishes send someone to Whitehorse to pick up the crates; the clothing is then unloaded and sold in parish-run thrift stores.
It’s no surprise the bales from the New Westminster ACW—and similar donations from ACWs across Canada—are so appreciated in the North, says Council of the North (CoN) chair Bishop Michael Hawkins of the diocese of Saskatchewan.
“In a lot of our communities, people just can’t afford clothing—it’s an extra expense,” he says.
Clothing donations are just one of many ways ACW groups across the country are providing much-needed help to northern parishes. At the other end of the country, in early 2015, the ACW of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island presented a cheque for $9,000—the fruit of a year of fundraising—to the CoN to support a theological training program in Arviat, Nunavut.
ACW aid for the North is part of a long tradition, Hawkins says. The origins of both the ACW and the CoN go back to the very beginnings of the Anglican church in Canada, Hawkins says; both started fundamentally as missionary societies, with the ACW a traditional supporter of the church’s work in the North and West.
Today, he says, the members of ACW remain “our strongest and most consistent supporters in terms of prayer, in terms of communication, and in terms of giving” both cash and in-kind donations.
The CoN, a grouping of 11 financially-assisted dioceses, parishes and an archdeaconry, covers most of Canada, in some places stretching all the way south to the U.S. border.
Despite the support it gets from the national church, Hawkins says, there’s always a need for more.
“The challenges, the needs and the demands of ministry life in the North are perhaps the greatest in the country,” he says. The CoN includes some of Canada’s most socially and economically challenged communities, with a high demand for the church’s ministry. But, he says, operating a church in the North means an expensive struggle with geography. Travel costs can be “astronomical,” given that communities are often far-flung and accessible only by airplane, he says. “It can cost $100,000 to fly people in for a meeting, for a synod and the like, and it also means that pastoral care for people can be terribly expensive.”
Because of the expense of travel, colleagues in the North might go three years without seeing one another, he says.
In financial terms alone, the ACW supports the North in a number of different ways. From 2010 to 2015, Hawkins says, 58 ACW groups across Canada—at the diocesan, deanery and congregational levels—have made financial gifts to the CoN totalling $93,589.95.
But this figure, he notes, does not include gifts made by ACWs directly to northern dioceses, congregations, projects and missions. ACW donations are also an important source of funding for the Northern Clergy Families Fund, from which 24 gifts of $950 a year are sent to the families of needy northern clergy.
Some ACW groups are known for giving large gifts. The ACW of the diocese of Toronto, for example, makes an annual contribution to the CoN; its gift for 2015 totalled $10,000. But even the smallest ACW group that sends hand-knit mittens, a small monetary contribution or prayers deserves to be celebrated, Hawkins says.
The support provided by the ACW means so much more, he says.
“There’s a sense of partnership which extends through all of this, and a sense of people’s concern and of being one—that despite the differences and despite the distances, there is a unity,” Hawkins says. “That’s the more fundamental aspect of it. It becomes tangible in those practical things.”
This support ultimately depends, says Cynthia Pilichos, past president of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island’s ACW, on the efforts of individual women.
“There’s no question that when you look at the activity of the women in the diocese—and in many cases, these women are quite senior at this point—they are phenomenal fundraisers,” she says.
Often, Pilichos says, their methods aren’t sophisticated; “they simply continue to go about doing the kinds of things that have traditionally brought in money”—bake sales, turkey dinners and other types of time-honoured events.
The secret is in their energy, talent, experience and commitment.
“The church has been a huge part of their life from birth, and the idea of giving and just offering themselves and doing this ministry is second nature to them,” Pilichos says. “They don’t just do one thing and say, ‘Phew’—they’re always looking at what is the next thing that we need to do.”