St. John's United Church, at the corner of Windsor and Willow in Halifax, looks churchy old---pointed arches with tracery and tall lancet windows, fancy brickwork, bell tower, three imposing front doors, two cornerstones, from 1917 and 1920. Inside there's a giant pipe organ, seating for over a thousand and two leviathan wrought-iron chandeliers, each with nine globe shades. Up in the bell tower: 13 massive bells, one of only two carillons in Halifax.
This great old church will be demolished.
A church is not the building; it's the hands and hearts of the congregation. This is certainly not the end of St. John's. Still, for thousands of people who live nearby or go by everyday, the building is an important landmark. They will never build another one like this one again.
Reverend Linda Yates is passionate about St. John's and believes rebuilding is the right thing to do.
It's about money, social consciousness and the building.
St. John's was made to serve 800 families but now serves 235; the collection plate take is way down. The money from bequests is mostly gone and will never rebound. Says Yates, "members need their money to live on."
The members of St. John's realize they are over-housed. The average Sunday attendance is 175; the downstairs of the sanctuary seats 1,200.
St. John's budgets $33,000 a year for heating oil. They know they're using too much energy to heat the place and that's not what they want.
"The estimate to fix the building up to code is $2 million!" says Yates. "In a church concerned about poverty and injustice? I don't think the current congregation would be on board for that."
They want something smaller. Studies point out a need for affordable seniors' housing. So that's what St. John's wants to do: rebuild on the same spot. Smaller sanctuary. Modern facilities. Sixty affordable units for seniors, built around and above the church.
Brian Jay has come to St. John's for 65 years. He was confirmed here, married here, baptized his children here and in December will baptize his third grandchild here. He leads the way up the steps in the bell tower. It's cold and windy. "You can see," he says, "how heat is funnelled up and out."
There is rust, bird shit and bricks becoming shards and dust as they succumb to wind erosion and water penetration. It is coldest and windiest at the top, where the bells hang. Jay says their heavy weight is part of the cause of weakened bricks in the walls below. And there is asbestos in the building.
St. John's is not the first Halifax church forced to transform. Oxford Street United amalgamated with Edgewood United. The building was sold and is now home to the Halifax Korean Church.
Trinity Church, at the corner of Brunswick and Cogswell, was sold to a developer who agreed to build a new Trinity Church on Willett in Clayton Park. The old one was torn down.
St. John's will move Sunday services to the Lillian Piercey Concert Hall in the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts on Chebucto, maybe for three years.
The congregation is raising money to buy a sturdy two-storey yellow house next door to their current home, at 6223 Willow. They'll need it for offices and storage space while they plan the future.
St. John's will continue to perform gay marriages. It will work the same as always: The couple will reserve a space---the Lillian Piercey Hall, St. Mary's Boat Club, wherever, and the ceremony will go ahead.
The last service in the old building will be on Sunday, January 4. It will start there and the congregation will make its way to the Conservatory.
Children will carry the objects that move that day, including the Bible, a communion chalice and the Christ candle. If the weather is good, they will be walking.
The Lillian Piercey Hall is a beautiful room. It feels like church already. The first Sunday of the New Year, when the congregation of St. John's arrives and begins to sing, the sound of their voices and the handbells will rise to the vaulted tin ceiling, higher, higher. Sky high.