The acrimonious debate over what is to be done with the deconsecrated 120-year-old Anglican church in the town of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, Nfld., was decided last night by a contentious town council vote of 4-3 in favour of demolition.
“To say that this has been a bruising journey would be an understatement,” Geoff Peddle, bishop of the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, wrote in response to the decision. “It has been an incredibly difficult journey for many involved that has led to deep divisions among some that we can only hope will heal with time.”
When the Anglican Journal spoke with Peter Jackson, an architect and president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Historic Trust (one of the bodies committed to preserving the building), he said he was “very disappointed that the town chose to ignore their own municipal heritage status on the building and vote for demolition,” and disappointed that the diocese didn’t “heed the groundswell of support for the church and withdraw their application for demolition.”
Peddle, in a pastoral letter sent to members of the parish in October 2014, maintained that the diocese undertook nine months of study and consideration that involved consultations with the congregation and groups both in favour and against the demolition. He said that he received over 100 “submissions…on the matter of the old church” and the “ratio in favour of taking down the old church with dignity and care was over eight to one” among people who contacted him and actually live in the community of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, “who pay taxes there, who vote there, and who in most cases identified themselves as Anglicans members of the parish.”
The roots of the conflict, which pitted the parish of St. Philip’s against local and provincial heritage groups in often bitter dispute, goes back to 2004, when the parish of St. Philip’s moved into a new building and parish hall that had been built to meet the changing needs of the congregation. The diocese had directed the parish to “dispose” of the old building, which dates to 1894, as a condition for building a new one.
The old church was deconsecrated in 2006; in 2009, the vestry of St. Philip’s applied for a permit to take it down. Many members of the parish, not wanting the burden of having to maintain two properties, were in favour of demolition, but other members of the community were surprised and shocked by the decision to destroy a building that they said had played a central role in the town for over a century.
A committee, Church by the Sea Inc., was formed in 2010 to attempt to preserve the building as a museum and cultural space, and in that same year, the building was designated as a municipal heritage structure.
However, on the very same day it was declared a heritage structure, the church’s steeple was vandalized so badly that it toppled to the ground, where it has lain for the past five years.
At the heart of the dispute is the fact that the church sits in the midst of the parish cemetery, and so it is not as simple as handing the building over to the care of the community. “The cemetery is still in use; it belongs to the parish of St. Philip’s; it’s our responsibility,” said the Rev. Ed Keeping, rector of St. Philip’s parish. “We don’t want things going on in the cemetery that would disrespect those that have gone before us.”
The problem of what to do with the building, like so many relating to historic church properties, ultimately comes down to hard financial realities. In his pastoral letter, Peddle noted that it would cost roughly $250,000 to move the church from its current location, and roughly $455,000 to refurbish it-costs “that neither the parish nor the diocese can afford or are prepared to pay.”
While Church by the Sea has raised some funds toward restoration, boasts a large number of willing volunteers and has released a proposal for development in January 2015, the problem of the church’s location proved intractable.
An attempt was made earlier in 2015 to bring the parish and Church by the Sea to mediation, but it failed, and the decision was handed over to town council on April 20.
When asked what will happen next with the building, Keeping said a timeline for demolition would be established through conversation with the bishop and the chancellor of the diocese. After the church is taken down, St. Philip’s plans on building a meditation space and garden for those visiting the cemetery that will include a memorial to the church.
His own perspective about the building that has caused so much rancour in his community, however, is pragmatic.
“I value what the church has done in the past,” he said, “but we’re not into saving buildings. We’re into saving souls and preaching the gospel, and the building is just a building.”