Despite protests from many residents, Sackville’s 135-year-old United Church drew its final crowd on Tuesday as crews began demolition.
After years of declining attendance, the church and surrounding property was sold to J.N. Lafford Realty on Jan. 1, 2013. The United Church congregation was moved to the refurbished old town hall adjacent to the historic church.
In Aug. 2014, Lafford Realty applied to the Town of Sackville for a demolition permit. Because the church’s Main-St. location is in Sackville’s heritage zone, any alteration or demolition to the building was subject to a municipal heritage and conservation bylaw.
The municipal bylaw declared that it is up to the Sackville Heritage Board to approve the permit. The bylaw asserts that “the building is offered for sale for a nominal sum on condition that it is removed from the site” and that provisions are made for the salvation of historically significant items.
For six months Lafford Realty had the building’s structure listed for sale and removal at $1. After no deals were struck, the Heritage Board issued the demolition permit in March 2015.
SPLASH, a community group aimed at preserving Sackville heritage, led a campaign to stop the demolition. They appealed the Heritage Board’s decision to the New Brunswick Provincial Assessment and Planning Appeal Board.
“We feel in our appeal that in many ways they were pushed to make that decision,” said Demian Hammock, a member of SPLASH. “The heritage board […] was never designed to deal with an issue like that, so we always felt that it should be done by a higher body.”
At the end of July, the appeal board upheld the Sackville Heritage Board’s decision to issue the demolition permit. They attached a salvage plan that had been left out of the board’s original approval in March. The plan included 27 of the 31 stained-glass windows. The 12-foot rose windows, however, were not salvaged.
Hammock says SPLASH wanted the building refurbished into a community centre. “If you look at a lot of refurbished churches, they can be a drawing card for the town, economically,” he said.
Hammock says the town could have stepped in to salvage the church. “If they really wanted to save that historical building they could have, they just chose not to,” he said.
Jamie Burke, senior manager of corporate projects for the Town of Sackville, says funding the restoration of the church was never a financial priority for the town.
“At the end of the day, [the church] is private property and it’s up to the private landowner to determine how that property is going to be conveyed,” said Burke.
The community-development organization Renaissance Sackville studied the feasibility of using the church as a community centre in 2013.
Their report concluded that converting the United Church into a community centre does not make good or feasible economic sense.”
Hammock says the historical and cultural significance of the church is important to the people of Sackville, citing a petition of 500 people to save the church.
“The town just wants this to go away and we’re going to make sure come election time that it doesn’t go away,” said Hammock. “Right now we’re going to look for accountability.”
Bill Evans, a town councilor, says the maintenance of the building would have been a huge ongoing cost.
“The congregation has shrunk, the congregation has moved on. We now have a big, old building that is owned by a developer,” said Evans.
“It’s sad to see it go – it’s a lot of history,” said Pat Sears, one of many Sackville residents watching the demolition. “It’s a huge piece of Sackville history.”