The United Church in Hensall, Ont., is getting a second chance with the help of Michael Haddad, who purchased the 131-year-old church. Photo by Kirtley Jarvis

Small Ontario town was about to lose its last Christian church... until a Catholic pharmacist intervened

  • January 23, 2019

LONDON, Ont., – In the week before Christmas, a 58-year-old pharmacist, Egyptian immigrant and devout Roman Catholic named Michael Haddad had his quarter-million-dollar bid accepted to purchase a recently shuttered United Church in Hensall, Ont. Haddad’s sole reason for making this purchase is so that this town of 1,200 situated about an hour’s drive north of London will not lose its last remaining Christian church.

While Haddad, his wife and his 20-year-old son will initially act as trustees for the church, the purchase is a gift to this town where for the last eight years Haddad has operated the pharmacy a couple blocks west of the church on Hensall’s main thoroughfare, King Street.

“The church will be held in trust,” Haddad says. “Whatever I will pay is a donation. No money will come to us. This is for the town.”

What makes Haddad’s generosity even more noteworthy is that he and his family don’t even live in Hensall. They live in London where his wife, Asteir Hanna — also a fully qualified pharmacist — operates the Ernest Pharmacy in the city’s south end. This entrepreneurial powerhouse of a couple met at university in Cairo when they both were students and successfully operated two pharmacies in Egypt before immigrating to Canada.

The couple also worship in London where they are deeply embedded at St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church — an Eastern Church in full communion with the Pope — where Haddad sits on the board of directors and acts as treasurer. Asteir’s mother, who lives with the couple, is Presbyterian and Haddad helps out with budgets and fund-raising for that church as well.

I jokingly ask Haddad if the folks at St. Elias might be getting worried that they’re about to lose him now that’s he’s bought a church of his own. “No,” he answers, looking slightly appalled by the suggestion. “I will never leave my church. Never. Our church is based only on 50 families, maybe, and if one family leaves, that’s a problem.”

Indeed, the exact opposite would appear to be the case. It is the love and commitment he feels for his home parish that drives him to do this wonderful thing for parishioners of another denomination in another town. He can’t bear to think of the people of Hensall being deprived of the sort of sustenance that he derives from his church.

“This is the only church left here,” he says. “If there were two or three, maybe I would say they could amalgamate together. Because I’ve been here eight years, I know maybe 80 per cent of the people who live in Hensall. A few people came into the store and one of them started anti-depressant medication and the other one said, ‘This is heartbreaking. I don’t know where to go.’ Another couple do not have a car, so are trying to arrange a ride to start to go to church in Exeter. So I feel it’s a kind of Christian duty — it doesn’t matter if they’re United or Presbyterian or Catholic — it’s my duty to have a place here for Jesus Christ.”

There was a special and very well attended multi-denominational Christmas Eve service held at the old Hensall United Church with many townspeople signing up to help with future operations. The deal’s closing date is April 12, and the 131-year-old house of worship will permanently reopen one week later for Easter celebrations as the Hensall Community Church.

“This church will not stay as just a United Church,” Haddad explains. “It’s going to be a community church that is open to all. My plan is to keep the United Church congregation by itself and they will have their own budget and expenses and income. For the Presbyterian, the United, the Pentecostal, we can do some communication and have a service here on a weekly basis. And we will have one or two more — and I hope that Catholic will be among them.”

I ask Haddad to entertain a worst case scenario: The deal closes on Friday, April 12, and on May 12, after the rainiest spring in the history of Hensall, you learn that the church has got to have a new roof. Who’s on the hook?

“That’s a very good question,” he answers with the smile of a man who genuinely relishes a challenge. “The church is in excellent physical shape but I am planning to put up extra money. The real estate appraisal came from 250 to 400,000 (dollars). So I said, ‘You know what? You might get the 400 and someone will knock it down to build more houses. You might get 400 and there will be no church, or 250 and there will be a church.’ I’m glad they agreed with this. From the beginning, myself and my wife, we prayed and we put a number. If it’s 300,000 and we agreed, then we are in. If it’s more than that, then we are out. And we feel that this is a sign from the Lord. It came to 250, a number we could agree on. So now I’m ready with another $50,000 to cover other expenses that we might face.”

Particularly for the first few years, Haddad recognizes there will be heavy demands on his time. “Already, I stay in Hensall two nights every week. So I know I can put in money and I can put in time. Money by itself will not work. You need time. You need vision. And the two nights I’ll stay here will not affect anything in my family or in St. Elias Church in London.”

One of the main focuses for Haddad will be finding ways to draw more people in to the church. “We have a plan for Sunday school, we have a plan for youth meetings. At St. Elias Church, about seven or eight months ago we started to have a soccer team. This attracted about 20 of our youth who before that hardly attended. Now when we have things like Bible Study, because they know each other, they come. You need things like this to attract young people.”

While it’s fairly straightforward to arrange for Protestant ministers to lead services, Haddad knows he will have to go through channels to request special permission to have a Catholic Mass said in a non-Catholic church, which canon law may permit in extraordinary circumstances.

“In a Catholic Church, I highly respect our pyramid structure,” he says. “Patriarch, bishop, priest, deacon and so on. I can’t just go to any Catholic church and say, ‘OK, Father, I need you to come to serve and do a Mass for us on a regular basis.’ I know I can’t do that. 

“It is my dream to have a Catholic Mass in this church as well. Is this allowed? I’m not sure. Because all our Catholic churches work as Catholic only. Can we be connected with other denominations? I don’t know. But I am praying that something like this can happen here. We don’t have too many Catholic families in Hensall. We have, I would say, 25. I am trusting in God for sure, to have our Catholic community meeting here instead of driving to Zurich or Exeter.”

Haddad has a contingency plan if he is not able to arrange for a Catholic priest to say Mass.

 “My plan here, even if I will not be able to get a Catholic priest on a regular basis, is to have a Catholic corner. I have to do this because it’s my background. I will prepare a place where we do something for the Virgin Mary and put out some candles and have our cross with a crucified Christ on it. It’s moving my heart even when I have it on a rosary in my car.”

I mention to Haddad that many of the great cathedrals have wonderful side chapels where there isn’t any sort of service going on but you can slip inside just to pray.

“That’s right,” he says. “Exactly. Thank you. Something like that. And actually we have a nice room, will be suitable for that. The least I can do for my Catholic belief is to have a small chapel, a small place.”

This generous and open-hearted man knows it’s a long shot but if anyone can make it happen — with the help of God — it’s Michael Haddad.

(Goodden is a writer in London, Ont. His latest book is Speakable Acts: Six Plays.)

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