Jack Knox: The Friars’ Briar Bonspiel means the temple of brooms is upon us

Jack Knox mugshot genericThe Catholic priests from Edmonton had to skip (as it were) the bonspiel this year. The Lenten calendar caused a conflict.

Likewise, the Frozen Chosen, a rink of rabbis, couldn’t make it. Two of the guys had to lead a teen trip to Israel.

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But the Mennonites are here, and the Lutherans and Anglicans and the team named the Re4mD.

Welcome to the Friars’ Briar Bonspiel, the Canadian Clergy Curling Championship.

It began Monday and continues through Friday at the Victoria Curling Club, where 18 rinks led by pastors and priests will trade clerical collars for brooms and sliders.

“As far as national sporting events for clergy go, I know of nothing else,” says Don Allan, the chairman of the Victoria organizing committee.

It’s about fellowship, Allan says, and friendly competition. Though as Ontario skip Pam Bartel noted, the more curlers win, the friendlier they feel.

This all goes back to 1978 when the idea for a national clergy championship was pushed by Toronto-area United Church minister Don Amos. (His son, Victoria artist and Times Colonist columnist Robert Amos, threw the opening rock Monday.)

If that first Friars’ Briar was, in part, about fostering national unity, it was also about the popularity of curling among clerics. This seemed particularly true on the Prairies, where the local curling club was the social centre of every one-elevator town from Two Hills, Alta., to Three Lakes, Sask., and therefore a magnet for ministers. “If they wanted to mix with the community, where would they end up? The curling rink,” Allan says.

There was another reason clergy took to the sport. Having worked all weekend, they would have Mondays off, when the rinks were empty and often offered up for free (a big deal in a vocation not known for high salaries). Curling was a great way to spend time with colleagues from other houses of worship, people who could relate to each other, who shared the same struggles and joys.

“We have a unique job,” says Cory Weiss, the lone member of the Frozen Chosen to return this year. “It doesn’t matter what religion, clergy are clergy.”

And hey, the Friars’ Briar was a good way to hang out with buddies, curl and watch the Canadian men’s championship: The clergy bonspiel is usually held in the same city and at the same time as the Tim Hortons Brier. (The Friars’ Briar used to spell Brier with an “e” too, but they had to change the name 30-odd years ago after being threatened with legal action; sounds like somebody was tempting fire and brimstone.) The Friars’ Briar is in Victoria this year because the Brier is in Newfoundland and the clergy event doesn’t draw from east of Ontario.

Many of the curlers have come to the Friars’ Briar for years. Retired United Church minister Fraser Muldrew, 87, has played every year the bonspiel has been held, winning five times. His brother Milt, an 89-year-old retired industrial arts teacher, is on the team, too. They play several times a week back in Winnipeg, where their club team also includes a 90-year-old.

“We have a young fellow who’s only 73,” Fraser says. “We need him to sweep.”

The Muldrews have been playing the game since 1943. “We’re very competitive,” Fraser says. “That’s the way we were brought up in the north end.”

The Friars’ Briar rules say every rink must be skipped by a clergyman. Other team members need not be ordained, but have to be drawn from either a clergy or church curling league. (We can assume whoever throws lead rocks is particularly pure: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”)

In practice, organizers have had to bend the rules a bit to fill all the spots. With Victoria having neither a clergy or church league, Pentecostal pastor Allan had to seek papal dispensation (as it were) to enter a foursome that includes two members of Glad Tidings Church, plus a curler who doesn’t attend services at all.

Bartel was allowed to skip her Kitchener-Waterloo rink despite not being ordained; she works at a college affiliated with the Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada.

Few teams are drawn from a single faith. For example, there’s a Toronto team made up of a Pentecostal preacher, a pastor from the Canadian Baptist Ministries, the husband of a United Church minister, and Weiss, a rabbi. (His synagogue shares a parking lot and a family of Syrian refugees with a mosque, so maybe they can coax an imam into the mix, too.)

Bartel is keen to see those of other faiths join in. “I love the collegial nature of the Friars’ Briar.”

But she also likes the competition. The Good Book may say “Thou shalt not steal,” but the Friars’ Briar offers a trophy for the team that does that the most, in the curling sense.

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