Life After: This is part of a series of stories about personal transformation
On the last Sunday morning in July, Rev. Maggie Helwig, rector of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Anglican church, takes her place at the pulpit to deliver the week’s homily. It’s going to be another sweltering day in Toronto, and a few plastic fans have been set up on either side of the congregation, blowing lukewarm air across the 20-some parishioners who’ve shown up for mass. Every so often the wail of a siren or the rumble of the College streetcar, passing just outside the church doors, fills the space.
“A week or so ago, I was asked to speak at an iftar, a Ramadan meal, and I mentioned that one thing that’s useful to know about Christians is that we have four gospels, and they don’t agree on very much,” she begins, to polite laughter. “So when they do, we need to treat that as important.”
She launches into a lively exploration of these agreements, including the miracle of the loaves – “a sign that we are called to live in a world where we all have enough to eat and we are not doomed to struggle against each other for survival – and the miracle calming of the storm at sea, explaining how these two stories are “almost as central somehow as Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.”
It’s a beautifully written sermon, poetic and engaging, and takes me back to the last time I’d sat in an audience listening to Ms. Helwig read from a stage. It was a literary reading of some kind or another, most likely her last book launch.
Before she was ordained as a priest in 2012, Ms. Helwig, now 53, was an award-winning and critically acclaimed author. Over the course of a writing career that stretches back to 1981, she published nine collections of poetry, a book of short stories, two volumes of essays and three novels. The most recent novel, 2008’s excellent Girls Fall Down, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award and was subsequently chosen by the Toronto Public Library for its One Book campaign in 2012.
“The best moment was on a panel discussion with the Archbishop, when someone brought up, ‘How can you be a priest and write this book? There’s all these swear words in it,’ she says, a few days later. “The Archbishop said, ‘You haven’t met many clergy, have you?’”
In fact, Ms. Helwig wasn’t yet a priest when she published Girls Fall Down, having just enrolled in the MA of divinity program at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She was in her late 40s, and about to reach the end – or perhaps the beginning – of a journey she’d begun decades earlier, when she was baptized, and, going back even further, when she first encountered the work of two writers who would influence her faith and her work: John Donne, a fellow poet and cleric who taught her “you could be a priest and a writer,” and T.S. Eliot. (She calls reading Eliot’s Preludes for the first time and encountering his evocation of “the notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing” a “life-changing moment.”)
She was baptized into the Anglican church at the age of 19 and, although she wouldn’t become a priest for another 30 years, she knew even then she’d do it one day.
“Part of the theological understanding of one’s life as a Christian is you are living out a vocation to which you are called by your baptism, and that vocation is different for everybody,” she explains. “But for me, on some level, the call to ordained ministry has always been there.
“I remember, very early, looking at the priests up at the altar and thinking I should be doing that,” she recalls. “And I just assumed everybody in the pews felt the same way.” She laughs. “It wasn’t until much later that I realized, no, actually most people don’t.”
If that’s the case, I ask, how do you know for sure? “You don’t,” she says. “I say the exact same thing to people who think they may want to be a priest as I say to people who may want to be a writer, because I think they’re tremendously similar: Only do it if you can’t not do it. You do it because you can’t not do it. Because it’s not just what you do, but who you are.”
Ms. Helwig, who lives nearby with her family, has a long relationship with St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, which she describes as a “tiny brick church” in Girls Fall Down. It was built in 1856 on the estate of George Taylor Denison, though Ms. Helwig says it’s uncertain if the church (which was designed by Thomas Fuller, who also designed the Parliament buildings in Ottawa) was meant for the Denison family or for the labourers who lived on the 156-acre property. Despite its storied history, “for a long time it has been a poor church among the poor,” she says. “The church has been on the verge of being closed since about 1910. Somehow we’re still here.”
She became priest-in-charge in 2013, rector last January, and plans to be “here until the Bishop tells me I’m not.” The “small-but-growing” congregation (Sunday attendance hovers “around 40”) is drawn from nearby Kensington Market and the areas south of College Street. She first came to the church in the late 1990s, first as volunteer and then co-ordinator of an out-of-the-cold program. Although the program moved to another church, St. Stephen-in-the-Fields still provides breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, and is in the middle of renovating its kitchen and parish hall. Ms. Helwig was drawn to the job here, in part, because of the church’s status as a community hub – “the whole Kensington community really thinks of this as their church” – and not just for parishioners. “For the really marginalized people in the area, this has always been a safe space,” she says, and indeed, the first afternoon I dropped by the church, a man was asleep on one of the pews.
“Sometimes I look out at my congregation and think, ‘This is real diversity,’” she says. “You don’t often see, really, people of different ethnic backgrounds, social backgrounds, radically different lives, all together in one room, being a community. I tell people the only thing we’re not is bourgeois. Everything else is here.”
Here is an increasingly wealthy area of the city, however, with several condo developments under way and homes creeping into the seven figures. “I don’t know what the future of this parish is going to be,” Ms. Helwig says. “What will happen as the neighbourhood changes, I don’t know.”
The church was up for sale about a decade ago, though if the same thing happened today, she says, “the neighbourhood would rise up and revolt, I can tell you. The neighbourhood loves this church and they would not let anything like that happen. They would chain themselves to the building.”
It’s something Ms. Helwig knows a lot about; she is, perhaps above all else, a social activist, and one willing to back up her views with action. She has been in jail five times and arrested approximately 100 times. “There are very few parishes where the clergy have actually bike-locked their necks to construction equipment,” she says. Indeed, she adds, “for a long time my social justice work was my religious activity.”
Being ordained hasn’t changed much. The morning of our first interview, she’d participated in a “die in” at Finch subway station against Line 9, a 40-year-old pipeline that pumps crude oil from Sarnia to Montreal, including under the station and the surrounding poorer areas of the city; Enbridge, which owns the pipeline, is proposing to reverse the flow of oil and increase capacity. The parish has adopted a position against the pipeline – graffiti scrawled on the outside wall makes that clear. She happily recounts how she and other protesters lay on the floor of the subway station, pretending to be dead, for about half an hour before being removed by security. She considers her social justice work part of what she does and who she is – she was active in the solidarity movement with East Timor in their fight for independence, worked in Bosnia during the war and campaigned on the Thai-Burma border – with emphasis, at least these days, on indigenous and environmental issues.
“The gospel is about the Kingdom of God,” she says. “It’s about real things in the real world. It’s about the planet and care for creation and social justice and the vision of a society of compassion and living that out. If the church isn’t doing that, what are we good for?”
All this means there’s little time to write poetry and fiction, though she’s adamant that the writing she does – sermons nearly every week – is “real writing.”
“I take it very seriously as literary production,” she says.
“I don’t think she’s ever stopped being a writer,” says her friend, the Rev. Andrea Budgey, the Humphrys Chaplain to the University of Toronto’s Trinity College and an honorary assistant at St. Stephen-in-the-Field. “I think she sometimes laments that she doesn’t have the time to sit down and do the kind of writing she used to. But, you know, every homily she writes is a beautifully crafted piece of prose. And I hope she does actually get around to putting them in a collection.”Report Typo/Error