HENSA, ONT. – Joseph was broken; idem for one of the wise. The storage was hard for the crib.
"I made my husband stick his heads back," says Tracey Cooper amid a rush to prepare for an unexpected Christmas Eve service. "It will not be perfect, and you know what, okay."
Out of another box came the Advent crown. Then the candles worked only to ensure safety, while Cooper and his friends decorated the church sanctuary. A tree? They found one hidden in the darkness, placed it near the pulpit, and gave life to it with a festive mixture of artificial poinsettia leaves and silver garlands. They were trying to create a certain environment.
"We want it warm and cozy," says Cooper. "It's a new age, that's what we're going for."
If the urgency can be cheerful, that is what is unfolding on the main street of this village north of London.
In an astounding reversal, the Hensall United Church, officially closed in November, was saved – imbued with a new life in time for Christmas, thanks to the donor spirit of an Egyptian immigrant.
By the time the rural congregations are shrinking and small town churches are closing down – Canada's Unified Church alone has lost seven a year in southwest Ontario recently – Hensall has a savior in his midst, an unlikely one in that.
The 131-year-old Protestant church, in a community not known for its diversity, is being resurrected by a Roman Catholic from the Middle East.
Michael Haddad, the town's pharmacist for the past eight years, stepped forward to buy the building. That he will reopen it as a place of worship makes this an unusual story of rebirth.
It is not uncommon for a church to be sold. They are typically adapted for another use or demolished to land. Rev. Tom Dunbar, a United Church minister from nearby Mitchell helping navigate the sale, says he has never heard of an individual buying a church to keep it as a church.
Haddad will pay $ 250,000 for the building, a price within a range provided by the appraisers. The proposal was approved by the administrators of Hensall United and its congregation. Lawyers are writing the paperwork to be submitted to the United Church of Canada.
As part of the deal, Haddad and his wife, Asteir Hanna, will bequeath the property to their 20-year-old son, Andrew. If Andrew has no interest in keeping him or dying, the church will return to the congregation.
"I'll never get a penny of my money," says Haddad, an infectious friendly 58-year-old. "I did it for two reasons. One, and that's maybe 90 percent, I did it for religious reasons. I consider it a duty as a Christian to keep a church of Christ open. It hurt to hear that it was closing.
"Ten percent is for the Hensall people who really support me. If I came here as a foreigner in this town and people would say, "We will not support such a business," in a month or two I would leave. But I felt very welcome. My heart is for this city. I felt the pharmacy would be a success from day one. "
Haddad says he also feared that since Hensall has an older population – 20% are over 65 – he could not attend another church. "How about all those people who do not drive?" He asked himself. "How can they pray?"
Haddad's plan is to turn Hensall's last church into a community center that any denomination can use for worship. All proceeds collected through events such as car washes, rummage sales, or Sunday collections will be made for maintenance.
"This is a very hopeful story," says Dunbar. "That's what our faith is and it has all these other topics too, which are so wonderful, the idea of peace and working together and breaking down barriers when we are in a time when it seems right to raise barriers. That definitely goes against that flow. "
Cooper, holding the station, sees this in another light.
"It's cheesy, but it's kind of a Christmas miracle. It could not have happened at a better time.
They have gathered in this building countless times; Sometimes there would be laughter, sometimes tears. A church, especially in a small town, is not just a place for Sunday worship. There are lunches, dinners, AA meetings, horticulture clubs, baby showers and weddings, community gatherings and, of course, weddings, funerals and baptisms.
It really is woven into the fabric of the community, and on November 25, with a foreclosure service, that community said goodbye.
The number of churchgoers on any given Sunday dropped to something between 16 and 20. And Jeffrey Dale, Hensall United's last regular minister, said the average age "was in the 80s."
This elderly congregation did everything it could to keep it alive, but it was not sustainable. There was just enough money in the coffers to turn it off.
But Haddad, who attends the church in London, heard of the impending closure and made a proposal to the administrators of Hensall United.
"I find it so incredible that someone from outside said," I am your neighbor. "I see you struggling." Let me help you, "says Dale.
In light of this potential salvation, Chuck Mallette – an organist and church healer – invited everyone from the village of about 1,000 people to gather at Hensall United on a Monday in December to hear the vision of a man to save him . Mallette and his wife rowed 50 seats in a church community room. He wondered if this was too optimistic.
In the end, about 80 people came out of the cold to hear what the pharmacist had to say.
Haddad stood in front of the wood-paneled room and, exasperating sincerity, read in a letter, his accent still evident after two decades in Canada. He cited the Scriptures, spoke of his plans to bring foosball tables and ping-pong, and movie and video game nights to lure young people. He explained how he would like to bring back Sunday school, which once thrived in the church. He explained his business plan because, he joked, the gas and water bills can not be paid with prayers and good wishes from God. People laughed.
Warming up and not needing more notes, he talked about how everyone could participate in a new vision. It would not cost people anything but their willingness to help and participate.
"This church has millions of memories. I did not imagine a truck would come and remove it, "he said. "This church is a historic treasure and occupies a place in everyone's heart in Hensall."
This was a revival meeting in every sense of the word and Haddad conquered the crowd. It looked like a scene from an old Frank Capra movie when participants began to come up with their own ideas about revitalizing the yellow brick piece that would be renamed Hensall Community Church.
Maybe there might be music again, it's been so long since the church had a choir. It might be possible to have special services for migrant farmworkers arriving in the region each spring. And it would not be great for the youth of the city to have a safe place to leave.
Mallette had put sheets on tables by the side of the hall for those who wanted to take an active part in church direction. By the end of the meeting, 20 people had left their names.
A smaller, private gathering of congregation members was held later. They agreed to accept Haddad's proposal. Apparently, there was not much return.
"Michael is willing to put his money where his faith is," says Mallette.
Haddad and his wife did not have to leave Egypt. Both were pharmacists too and had a good life. But they were adventurous too, and though they were not politicians, they both longed to live in a country with more freedom.
They looked at Canada or Australia, but it was Canada that needed pharmacists. They arrived in 1995.
Michael worked first as a Domino's Pizza deliveryman and at a gas station. Asteir attended clients at a Coffee Time. In their off hours, they upgraded their education to be licensed in Canada.
Now they feel that they live in a kind of paradise.
"It's a beautiful country," says Haddad. "It's a rich country. Even driving home, it's dark and it's winter, but you feel your spirit is on the rise. You're very lucky to be in Canada.
Hanna has her own pharmacy in London. Haddad has his store in Hensall since 2011 after working in places like Goderich and Exeter as an employee. He knew that this village did not have a pharmacy and loved the intimacy of small town life. It makes the 45 minute drive to London most nights, but stays in an apartment at Hensall Pharmacy when the weather is bad.
He attends regularly the Maronite Catholic Church of St. Elias, in London, where he is director and treasurer. He is also a financial adviser at the Almanarah Presbyterian Church in London. He understands the commercial side of religion.
He also understands that King St. in Hensall – known as the White Bean Capital of Canada – is not what it was. Haddad keeps a postcard behind his pharmacy counter, which shows the main street as thriving. He guesses the image is around 1980. The big grocery store is gone before it gets here. There are many empty shops. The bank just left. Haddad now must drive the nine miles south to Exeter just to make changes.
"The closure of the church, if it had happened, would have been another punch in the village," says Mallette.
Haddad says he loves it here and feels loyal to a city that treated him so well. He says he longed to give something back.
"But I never feel like I'm doing something great or incredible," he says. "God put me in this city for a reason and maybe that reason would come now.
"Maybe it's a Christmas present for this beautiful city."
They are waiting for a crowded house at Hensall United on Christmas Eve. The service will have additional meaning and an extra sense of celebration, given what has almost been lost.
Cooper and his friend Cheryl Rader were among those who signed up for the meeting. Now they, along with Mallette and Heather Forrest, are organizing the service.
"We decided that if there was a way to save it, we would get involved," says Rader. "We sat long enough."
Kathy Mann has been a member of Hensall United since 1962. She taught Sunday school there and remembers banks with weekly attendance close to 300. Mann has always been in charge of decorating for Christmas. This year, until Haddad volunteered to save the church, she was not even able to enter the sanctuary. Now she is part of the team that is preparing the church.
She remains "cautiously optimistic" about the long-term viability of her church.
"You need faith and hope," she says. "Never again."
Paul Hunter is a reporter and writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @hunterhockey