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Old churches find new purpose

A piper welcomes guests to historic St. Mary’s Church, the venue for the Indian River Festival.
A piper welcomes guests to historic St. Mary’s Church, the venue for the Indian River Festival. - Contributed

CHERRY HILL, N.S. - Like many of us, I suppose, I hadn’t been inside a church on a Sunday in a long time.

Yet there I was recently as sunlight filtered through the stained glass and filled the rafters of the old St. Paul’s Anglican Church in the village of Cherry Hill, trying to keep a 43-kilogram dog with a wandering attention span from crashing into the tables of old glassware, the vintage toys and the nautical curios.

Teena Coolen tells me she hasn’t changed much inside the church since she bought it, price undisclosed, from the Anglican Diocese five years back.

“I had to do some repairs, of course. The community couldn’t handle the upkeep; there weren’t enough people going to church and putting money into the collection plate.”

But the pews are still there, the same ones, perhaps, as when Donald Conrad became the first baby baptized in the church, which had been built in the late 1800s.

So is the altar, behind which Rhoda Conrad, Mary Lohnes, Maurice Conrad and Stella Forbes at one time or another played the organ.

Some of the people who enter Teena’s Tiques are antique hunters. Some of them are old-timers from the area.

Some just wonder whether buildings can have spirits, too, and whether there’s still something breathtaking about a house of God when it becomes something else altogether.

Anyone who drives around this province can check this theory out because churches, for so long the centre of many communities, are closing like never before.

There are a variety of reasons, including rural depopulation and declining church attendance.

The good news is they are being transformed using an architectural concept called adaptive reuse, which says it’s OK, sometimes even preferable, to reuse an old structure for a new purpose.

There’s a church that is a full-time museum in Sydney and one that is a part-time bookstore in Port Maitland.

Churches have been turned into a concert space on Pictou Island, a tea house in Weymouth and an antiques showcase in Great Village.

Instead of choir practice and Sunday school, churches now house businesses in Windsor Junction, a karate dojo in Amherst and a winery in Newport.

In bigger places, churches have been re-purposed into condos, summer cottages or full-year residences.

When Cindy MacDonald, another church owner, bought the Presbyterian church-turned Masonic Temple in 2009 in Bridgetown, her idea was to convert it into a wedding venue.

Then she added a business partner and expanded to include a catering business and a bar.

So far so good at Temple on Queen.

First opened in 1871, while owned by the local Masonic Lodge only Masons got to see the church’s stunning Gothic revival architecture.

Now, anybody who enters the building sees the inspirational spires, columns and pointed arches.

“It’s been a real (crappy) year for me,” says MacDonald, adding that inside the old, beautiful building there are times, particularly when alone, that she experiences something that she can only describe as peace.

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