Expert architect addresses church restoration

EDITED United Church by Chris DonovanThe Sackville Town Council has been exploring the possibility of restoring the United Church building downtown, and repurposing the building into a community centre. At a meeting last Thursday, they were presented with a feasibility report from Renaissance Sackville, and on Monday, Christopher Borgal, an internationally recognized restoration expert brought by the Heritage Canada Foundation, addressed a packed town hall.

The Renaissance Sackville report concluded that the necessary repairs and repurposing would cost $1.45 million and put monthly operating costs at well over four thousand dollars. The report stated “converting the United Church into a community centre does not make good or feasible economic sense.”

Borgal asked the audience to consider the alternative to the church building. “You have to think in terms of: if that building wasn’t sitting on that Main Street corner in this community, what would you have? You would have a parking lot, and you’d have a downtown core with no feature buildings at all,” he said.

“It’s an incredible asset that you’ve got in your midst,” said Borgal, adding “it’s completely repairable.” He described the church as “a very important building in this country.”

The building had been owned by the United Church until it was bought by John Lafford last year. The congregation decided to sell the building when they could no longer keep up with the costs. It was reported that Lafford did not have any plans to demolish the church at the time of purchase. He gave those who were concerned about demolition, namely the Heritage Board, some time to organize a way of saving the church. At the October 7 meeting, Hammock, a Renaissance Sackville spokesperson, praised Lafford for his cooperation and said, “he is very keen to cooperate with us if we can find a way to save the building.”

Hammock suggested that coming up with the necessary funds will be difficult but doable, and that the Renaissance Sackville will continue to explore alternative uses for the building.

“If you look at the total cost to repair it upfront, it becomes very daunting,” said Borgal. He said that the community should look at the incremental cost, and take early steps to stabilize the building and prevent it from falling further into a state of disrepair.

Borgal also drew attention to the large pool of potential donors with an emotional connection to the church and said, “you’ve got all those people who were ordained as ministers, you’ve got all the people that were married there, or whose grandparents or great-grandparents are buried in the graveyard.”

“It’s got to come from the community, the [restorations] that I’ve seen work do not come from the top-down from the politicians, it comes from people locally who really believe [in the project],” he said, emphasizing that restoration of the church for some alternative use will depend on community involvement.

Borgal also raised the point that restoring old buildings would complement the town’s green initiatives. He stressed that saving the building is “the greenest thing you can possibly do.”

At the October 7 meeting, Borgal reminded council members that the church is “directly connected with the university and has deep connections with the community and its development.” While construction of the church began between 1875-1876, the connections between Sackville’s Methodist community and the university were established decades earlier. Methodist (later to become the United Church of Canada) clergy held prominent positions in faculty and administration well into the twentieth century. Mount Allison University was founded as a Methodist institution, and to this day the university remains affiliated with the United Church of Canada.

Of particular heritage value are the graveyard, organ, and stained glass of the church: The organ and stained glass have been praised by experts across the country. The church’s graveyard is home to the grave of Charles Frederick Allison, the founder of Mount Allison University.

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