MINDEMOYA – It has been a long journey from a teenage gas jockey in Listowel to a shepherd of souls on Manitoulin Island, but Pastor Josh Wilhelm doesn’t regret a step. Well, actually, he left the UPI gas station as an assistant manager, but one gets the idea.
“I am loving it, so far,” he said of his new home and church. “I am happy to be living here on Manitoulin Island. It is a dream location for me and my wife.”
Pastor Wilhelm, his wife Katrina and labradoodle Animoons (that’s Anishinabemowin for little dog) have settled into their Mindemoya home after living in Vancouver for six years. Pastor Wilhelm worked as an assistant manager of the bookstore at that city’s Regent College where he studied and attained his divinity degree, graduating in 2020 with a master of arts in theological studies.
This will be Pastor Wilhelm’s first pastorage and the licenced minister still needs two years to be able to apply the honorific “Reverend” to his name, but that does nothing to diminish the passion he brings to the lectern. Still, he describes his call to the vocation as something of a road to Damascus lightning bolt.
“It was unexpected,” he said, “kind of like Saul of Tarsus.” While he didn’t fall off his mount on the way to collect taxes for the Romans, he was kind of collecting taxes while pumping gas.
It began with a planned one-year stint at bible college in nearby Kitchener, then he met his future wife and began his ongoing journey into the ministry. The move to Vancouver became a logical signpost in his life, but becoming a pastor was still not in the books—but he soon was.
“I think the manager was grooming me as his eventual replacement in the bookstore,” said Pastor Wilhelm. But he eventually found himself growing restless within those bounds.
“My wife and I made a list of everything we like in a place,” he said. Manitoulin hit every mark—especially when it came to hockey. It seems Mindemoya offered an opportunity to skate up and take the puck to the net.
Ms. Wilhelm has settled into a new job at Manitoulin Family Resources. As a Franco-Ontarian with Anishinaabe roots, it was her inspiration to name their labradoodle Animoons.
The pastorage where Pastor Wilhelm has taken up his calling has recently undergone something of a moment itself, changing its name from the familiar Mindemoya Missionary Church to Freshwater Community Church.
While the name change came before the pastor, he was well-versed in how and why the name change came about. The church, he explained, has been one of Manitoulin’s spiritual assets for some 82 years and this is not the first time it has changed its name, but there were some compelling reasons to make the move.
“Although the main church building is located in Mindemoya, we really serve the much broader Island community,” said Pastor Wilhelm. “It is important to emphasize that we are open to the whole Island.”
The name Freshwater was chosen due to the linkages that name has to the teachings of Jesus and the importance that water plays in everyone’s lives, but especially the symbolic important role it has in Anishinaabe culture and traditions.
The word “missionary,” while reflective of the outreach nature of the church, has unfortunately accumulated a significant amount of negative baggage due to historic injustices committed upon Indigenous peoples. “The Island’s population is 40 percent Indigenous,” noted Pastor Wilhelm, “and that word has difficult connotations, a lot of hurtful history for some people.”
While the church is still part of the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada denomination, it was felt that a name change for the local church was an easily accomplished, but truly visible act of reconciliation.
The Wilhelms are looking forward to their first Christmas on Manitoulin Island, a place where all the checkmarks have fallen into place.
Freshwater Community Church has services on Sundays at 11 am, and folks can also check them out at freshwatercomunitychurch.ca or on Facebook (Freshwater Community Church).