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As shrinking rural communities lose their churches, what is happening to the vacant buildings?

by Sara Jewell

For those of us who grew up attending church, how many ever mused during worship services about what it would be like to live in a church—to turn a church into a home, an artist’s studio, a café—or even a (heaven forbid) brewery?

Whether they consider it divine inspiration or a vision of madness, there are Atlantic Canadians who have turned that opportunity into a well-renovated reality.

Brothers Jeff and Peter Grandy were looking for a place in rural New Brunswick to open up a brewery and coffee roaster.

“A lot of signs kept pointing towards Alma,” Jeff says—but the former St. Stephen’s United Church on Main Street wasn’t their first choice. When their preferred space fell through, they took a serious look at the church. “Despite it being smaller than what we anticipated having for the manufacturing set-up and retail area, we felt it could work, with the high ceilings for the brew space.”

When renovations began with their third business partner, a contractor, they were cognizant of the emotional ties the community had to the church.

“The church had been decommissioned for a few years and it was starting to show signs it needed work,” Jeff says. “We knew there would be some people who wouldn’t appreciate it, and we did the renovations with that in mind. Our plan was to keep it looking the way it looked without making fun of the fact it’s a church. For the most part we kept what we could and still be functional. We reused the pews and about 80 per cent of the wood that we had to take out of the church.”

The Buddha Bear Coffee Roaster and Holy Whale Brewery opened in 2016. Peter, who now lives in Alma, is the coffee roaster, while Jeff makes the beer.

Jeff says the conversion from former church to beverage mecca has been well-received by the community, and several former ministers have dropped by to visit.

Transforming the 2,300 square foot space had its challenges. As with most churches, it wasn’t insulated or fully plumbed, but it was also smaller than they’d originally planned on and renovations took longer and were costlier than expected.

“Setting up a brewery in that space was a challenge,” Jeff says. “We probably should be double the square footage at least. We’re in very tight quarters.”

But he says, as customers walk in, they still get that welcoming church feeling, and in the end, that makes it worthwhile.

“We’re super happy now,” he says. “Looking back at what we did, it’s a great choice.”

For others, size is not an issue; they “just know” the moment they step into the space.

Commercial artist Dawn Oman, of Bridgetown, NS, certainly wasn’t looking for a huge church in which to open a new gallery but in 2014, when she and partner Scott Henderson walked through the doors of what had been Gordon Providence United Church, they were immediate  and enthusiastic believers.

“Going into the sanctuary was like angels singing!” recalls Dawn. “There were these incredible stained-glass windows and this magnificent pipe organ. I said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

While Dawn walked in with the artist’s eye, Scott is a carpenter and immediately was captivated by the large beam construction of the structure built in 1872. “The sanctuary looks like an upside-down hull of a ship,” he says.

Commercial artist Dawn Oman and her partner Scott Henderson fell instantly in love with the massive organ and stained glass windows of the former United Church in Bridgetown, NS. The church’s entryway was transformed into Dawn’s gallery and shop; there are regular workshops, parties and musical performances in the main area.

Images Courtesy of Scott Henderson

His first task after they took ownership was converting the narthex, or entryway, of the church into Dawn’s gallery and store. After that, he began tearing down walls in the sanctuary in order to properly plumb, wire and insulate the more than 6,000 square foot building.

“The biggest challenge was doing the work mostly by myself. It’s my personality; I will wait until there’s absolutely something I can’t do before I ask for help,” he says with a chuckle. Since at the time he also worked 30 hours a week as a licensed practical nurse, it took 18 months just to gut the building.  

“I remember that last load of garbage going to the dump,” he says. “From that point we were building, not tearing down.”

Dawn says from the beginning, they’ve been committed to keeping the church looking like a church, preserving not only the stained-glass windows but also the 1902 Casavant Opus #163 pipe organ.

“A year after we bought the church, we went to Montreal and realized that Casavant pipe organs are made in Saint-Hyacinthe. We went to the shop and they gave us a full tour and showed us the original sales receipt for our organ. In 1902, it cost $1,500.”

Dawn and Scott want their renovated church to continue being a place for the community to gather. It is an art gallery, a venue for concerts and fundraisers, wedding receptions and birthday parties. Dawn hosts a painting group every week, and musicians come to jam on Tuesday nights.

For Scott, preserving the building is important because of what it represented to the people who used it. “These are ways we let the building be here for the community aside from us needing to make a little money from the space.”

Honouring a church’s place in a community inspired Sylvia and Gunther Polinsky to host a “neighbourhood party” once they’d completed renovations on their former church in Bayfield, New Brunswick, near Cape Tormentine.

They bought the property in 2016, installed a red steel roof then renovated it themselves as a vacation rental home. The Church House welcomed its first guests at Easter 2017.

“There was only one toilet and sink in the whole church, so we did a whole bathroom,” Sylvia says. “We closed stairways and made the rooms bigger. We built a kitchen where the chancel was; the living room and kitchen are open concept, about 1,500 square feet.”

There was only one plug in the main floor. “You cannot live with one plug nowadays!” she laughs.

As with others who purchase decommissioned churches, Sylvia and Gunther were concerned about how the community would feel when it was converted into a rental home, so they incorporated the two large paintings hanging at the front of the sanctuary into their kitchen space.

“It’s our thank you, our respect to the community,” she says. “Most of the people who came in while we were renovating, the first thing they said was that we kept the pictures.”

According to Sylvia, one of the reasons the church closed was the lack of funds to repair the roof.

“Most people we talk to are happy we did something with this church. They are happy it’s not falling apart.”

To show their appreciation, Sylvia and Gunther (who are from Austria) host an Oktoberfest party at the Church House every fall.

“Everyone is invited, and we have a good time together, so people have a chance once a year to come back to their church. People really like it. We had 80 people attend this year.”

It’s the community response that most surprised Marly Anderson of Charlottetown, PEI, when she and her husband reinvented an old church on the outskirts of a seaside village.

On a visit to Victoria-by-the-Sea in June 2016, Marly and Greg were taken not only by the village but also by the vacant church they passed on their way. They, too, “just knew” this church, unused for 12 years, would be part of their future.

They came up with a business plan to turn the former United Church into The Grand Victorian destination wedding venue (with Greg as the marriage commissioner) and received the financial support of PEI’s tourism sector. The renovations took six months, and they struggled to preserve the charm of the church, which is more than 140 years old.

“You don’t want to lose the bead board walls and ceilings that you find in a church. They wanted us to rip out the beautiful front staircase,” says Marly. “We tried to figure out ways to build to code without losing its charm. We knew we had to stay true to our business plan and why we fell in love with it.”

In order to provide all wedding services on-site, the basement is completely finished with a kitchen, bathrooms, and a space for one half of a wedding party to get ready, while the former balcony space is now a bedroom suite. The sanctuary was rechristened “the ballroom”. 

“People stop us on the street and say they used to go to that church or were baptized or married there,” Marly says. “We researched the history and now our hearts are in that history.”

After adding a tea room, their last fix-up was the steeple, including a new weathervane, and according to Marly, the villagers are thrilled because you can see the steeple not only from the main street but also from the water.

“The fishermen still use it as their way back to shore, which is something I didn’t know,” she says, still in awe of the significance of something as simple as a church spire.

Painter Chris Ricketts understands the vantage point a church provides to a community, both physically and spiritually. He grew up in King’s Cove, NL, where he and his wife, Karen, recently bought a decommissioned Anglican church that is a town landmark. Many of his paintings include it.

Chris admits he always wanted to live in a church. “Even as a kid, I was drawn to the architecture.” He and Karen own an inn and restaurant in nearby Plate Cove West but will move to the church once renovations are completed.

“We want to preserve as much of the church as we can,” Chris says, “but we want to make the part we live in energy efficient. We have to build an insulated box inside the church.”

First, they intend to turn the former rectory, which they bought as part of the property, into a café because, as Karen explains, “we don’t want to move away from the inn and have nothing to do.”

Chris plans to use part of the church as an art gallery, and perhaps for musical evenings as well. The couple says as daunting as their dream project seems, they are excited.

“Every time we spend time here we get a better idea of how to develop it as our place,” says Chris. “There’s no blueprint yet, just a lot of ideas.”

…And a bit of divine inspiration. 


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