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Ringing in 150: How an Ottawa church whose bell rang out on July 1, 1867, is today part of the New Canada

Ottawa Citizen
July 1, 2017

The clanging sound of unbridled rejoicing rang across Ottawa the moment the Dominion of Canada came into being at midnight on July 1, 1867. And one of the very bells that joined in that chorus 150 years ago today, pealing its welcome to Confederation, still tolls in the heart of the 21st century capital.

But the old church bell resonates with new meaning now. It rings out a weekly call to prayers that are led by both men and women of the cloth. It invites same-sex spouses into a where place they were once forbidden. It has welcomed a Muslim family rescued from Syrian peril by the church’s own Samaritans. It has resounded with sorrow — and shame — for grievous wrongs done to the original peoples of the land.

And just last night, on the eve of today’s historic sesquicentennial celebrations to usher in Canada’s next 150 years, the bell summoned not only Protestants and Catholics but also Muslims, Jews and those of all other faiths to a special “Prayer for Canada” — beginning with invocations from an indigenous spiritual leader.

You don’t have to venture far beyond the shadow of the Peace Tower to discover a place in downtown Ottawa where the “New Canada” is being forged today, a century and a half after the nation formally came into existence on that long-ago first Dominion Day.

And the place may come as a surprise, emblematic as it is of the Old Canada, too.

Christ Church Cathedral at the west end of Sparks Street — longstanding bastion of Anglican power and privilege in Canada’s capital — encapsulates much of this country’s very complicated story: its richly layered history of darkness and light; its unfolding future of challenge and change.

It’s the place where “Truth and Reconciliation” aren’t just high-sounding words — there’s too much acknowledged blame and regret for that — but are instead an urgent call to action and atonement for the countless injustices suffered by indigenous Canadians throughout the country’s history. Central among those offences were the Indian Residential School horrors perpetrated, in part, by earlier generations of Anglicans themselves.

Christ Church is the place where, thanks to a team of charitable parishioners, a family of refugees from Syria — Shoq and Mohamad Othman and their four children — found support and sanctuary after escaping a homeland shattered by war, terrorism and tyranny.

Pastoral Vicar Catherine Ascah recalled how the determination to sponsor a family — any family in need, no matter their faith or circumstances — emanated from the cathedral’s pews.

“This wasn’t a call from the pulpit,” she says. “The feeling was: We have the resources. We have the capacity. We need to do our part. We need to do something.”

Today, thanks to the church and its Rotary Club partners, the Othmans have settled into a home in Kanata.

“At first I felt afraid — I didn’t understand anything about Canada,” says Mohamad Othman, thinking back to when he first heard his family would find refuge in Canada. After fleeing Syria’s violent collapse and spending long months as refugees in Lebanon, the Othmans finally reached Ottawa in early 2016.

A visit to Christ Church to thank the congregation for their sponsorship was one of the family’s first outings on Canadian soil.

“When we came to Canada, I saw that people were very nice, very good. My feeling had changed,” says Othman, who is taking courses to improve his English and plans to begin training soon as a mechanic. “They worked very, very hard for us. I love Canada.”

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