Churches sell for $1 as congregations dwindle
The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, January 15, 2011 3:07PM EST
HALIFAX - Stewart Creaser likely couldn't imagine the journey he would set out on when he decided to save a small wooden church in Nova Scotia from the wrecking ball.
More than a year ago, the owner of a vineyard in a bucolic nook of the province put word out that he was looking for a building to house a new wine shop.
Soon after, his phone started ringing with people offering up buildings of every type if they could be hauled away. Otherwise, some would face demolition.
What struck Creaser was that many were old, solid churches that had once been the centre of their communities, but were now home to only a handful of congregants who couldn't afford the hefty maintenance bills.
"We've had people from all over the province telling us about buildings that are available -- most of them churches," he said from his home in Avondale.
"That's the sad part of a lot of this, that the community has this wonderful church they don't want to lose, but they can't use it themselves anymore, so sometimes they go out and try to sell it.
"But ultimately a lot of times they just say, 'Someone will save it. That's better than having to tear it down."'
It's a situation that's been playing out across the country for years, but is becoming more pronounced in Atlantic Canada as people move out of rural areas and take with them the vital financial support that keeps churches afloat.
The reality is especially true in central Nova Scotia, where Creaser settled on a 170-year-old Anglican church in Walton that was offered up for a dollar after the congregation shrank to fewer than 10 and was closed in 2008.
After a few false starts, he's hoping to load the 30-tonne structure onto a ferry this spring and float it up the Avon River to his winery in Avondale, nearly two dozen kilometres away.
But it's a rare salvation for the 16-metre-long and nine-metre-wide building that was to be demolished if no one stepped forward.
"There's a lot of churches in this rural area that are empty and a lot of them are up for sale," said Ted MacDonald, Walton's former parish warden.
"It's a shame but that's the way it goes ... People aren't attending church anymore."
St. Matthew's, a prim, Gothic-style church bought by Creaser for the $1.67 originally paid for it in 1837, is one of many in the region and across the country that are being given up because parishioners can't afford to keep them.
Iain Macdonald, the minister of Rawdon Hills United Church in nearby Upper Rawdon, watched as several of his churches were closed and sold off, some for pennies, after the fire inspector said they needed about $40,000 each to bring them up to code.
One was turned into a summer cottage. Others sit idle.
"As long as I've been a minister, the numbers have been dwindling and that's national," said Macdonald, who has worked in various parishes across the country.
He believes declining rural populations, sex abuse scandals involving the church, native residential school settlements and hockey on Sundays are turning people away from regular services.
Officials with the oldest Baptist church in Saint John, N.B., announced last week that it would close its doors because of a dwindling congregation and limited finances.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of London, Ont., offered to sell three churches for $1 apiece in 2008 after repair bills were estimated to be close to $3 million.
A Catholic diocese in Cape Breton is selling properties to raise money for a sex abuse settlement, but many churches had already closed because they were becoming too expensive to heat in the winter.
One has been turned into a youth centre, while several are empty, raising the possibility that they may have to be demolished if not sold.
Rev. Laurence DeWolfe, a professor of pastoral theology in Halifax, said he's witnessed churches being sold in larger urban centres for years as congregations shrink and funds dry up.
But the phenomenon is becoming more commonplace in rural areas in this region as people head to cities or out of province.
"Rural depopulation has happened later here, but it's happening very rapidly now" and is leading to the deconsecration of more churches, DeWolfe said at the Atlantic School of Theology.
"It's new enough in the Maritimes that when it happens, people panic and think it's awful, but in downtown Montreal, downtown Toronto and cities across the country it's been going on for a longer time."
DeWolfe, who was a minister in Ontario and Nova Scotia for 26 years, said churches are also amalgamating with other congregations or using churches for many uses, like nursing homes or homeless residences.
Others on prime real estate are often sold to developers and torn down to make way for condos.
It's a prospect Creaser, 56, bemoans since he says many churches have construction features that should be treasured.
"Some of them are just magnificent old buildings and the quality of construction is just amazing," he said, referring to the moldings and curved woodwork in his church.
"There are beautiful curved beams and to do that today, people would say you can't do that, but it's there ... and all that wonderful craftsmanship would be gone."