After 22 years, Rector John Steele is leaving St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church on Tyndall Avenue in Gordon Head.
When he arrived as a 39-year-old with a young family in 1996, St. Dunstan’s was in the midst of what the Anglican Church calls “a breakdown in pastoral relations.” The once-thriving church was down to one service per week, one child in Sunday school, no choir, no prayer group and one crafting group.
“The job posting was the most honest profile I’d ever seen,” Steele recalled. “But it also said, ‘We’re willing to change and grow.’ And what’s important is that they meant it, and we spent a lot of time engaging the community.”
For starters, Steele expanded the Sunday school program by adding two youngsters of his own (soon to be three), including his son John-Daniel, who was two at the time.
During one of those first sermons, John-Daniel contently toddled among the pews.
“He eventually laid on the floor sucking his thumb during the service and [a man] said to me, ‘If I did that when I was a boy I would have had my britches tanned,’” Steele recalled. “I agreed, but people knew then that we were committed to welcoming family in a new way.”
Steele, now 60, is moving with his wife to Cobble Hill where he’ll likely serve until he retires. He leaves the Saanich church with a congregation that consistently tops 70, strong numbers in the wake of the recent downsizing of the Anglican and other Protestant churches.
“What’s special here is its locals, they’re from this neighbourhood, this is not a destination church,” Steele said. “You see these people in school, at the playground and at the grocery store.”
Steele was also known to carry his nine-month-old son during communion, placating the little one during the regimented service.
Today St. Dunstan’s has a thriving Sunday school, a youth choir of 14, a senior choir, two Sunday morning services, two weekly Bible study groups, gardening and craft groups. There’s also a long list of community user groups that are based out of the annex, Garry oak boy scouts and girl guides and the Kids Club daycare. The church itself hosts a big band group, classical concerts, high school concerts and more. Steele offers two sermons a week to seniors in residence, at the Berwick House and The Victorian, both in Gordon Head.
For Steele, Saanich has been a great place to raise his three children, who are now 22, 25 and 27.
“It’s been a fantastic and wonderful parish, a great place to raise children. The people at the parish are loving and kind,” Steele said. “And I’ve had the pleasure to see children that I baptized grow up, preside over their marriage, and then baptize their own children.”