Scruples and Steeples

Mahone Bay’s famous churches are facing challenges. These are of course not ordinary churches. These buildings have taken on a status that transcends religion. Collectively they are Mahone Bay’s Eiffel Tower – Lunenburg County’s Statue of Liberty; unlike such contrived landmarks though the existence of these churches is natural and sincere – and therein lies their true charm.

Their relationship to one another and to the water and their similarity yet individuality of forms creates a unique viewscape that has lured and captivated both locals and visitors. Their beauty has inadvertently contributed to the growth of tourism-based businesses in Mahone Bay’s waterfront business district. They have helped make Mahone Bay a nice place to live. But we know all of this. What we don’t know, is how to ensure that these churches continue to make the town a special place while the good people who worship inside struggle with the burden of maintenance within a society that is both increasingly secular and increasingly anti-maintenance. The latter concern is, of course, a reference to that camp who believes if something needs fixing – it should be replaced.

If any one of these churches approaches that final lamentable stage of disposal, the entire county had better mobilize because the architecture of these three churches needs to be viewed as a community asset and as such it deserves community support. Now, support for what happens inside these churches is a personal choice and needs to be separated from what happens outside which is where the churches’ well-documented architectural aesthetic comes into play.

Mahone Bay, and indeed every place of cultural significance, needs a new formula – a formula that supports the authenticity of place here in Nova Scotia. Preservation of our historic architecture is a huge (and often overlooked) economic driver and quality of life booster. Mahone Bay illustrates that as well as any place can.

The problem is that once such architecture is gone, it’s gone; because the scale, quality, and aesthetic of most modern buildings cannot evoke the same degree of emotion as that of earlier edifices.
So what would a new formula look like?

Before getting to that it is important to remember two points with respect to the history of churches in Nova Scotia and in the process debunk a couple of widely-held assumptions. First, most of these glorious buildings were not constructed solely by means of subscriptions from the congregation. Others in the community, regardless of religious affiliation often contributed to the fund raising – or in other words there was community-wide financial support. Secondly, dwindling numbers of church goers is not a new or irreversible trend. The same problem was lamented during the first decade of the twentieth century. The New Glasgow Enterprise, in 1909 for instance, investigated the problem and declared that “not one half of the people… were attending any church.” Interestingly, reasons for not attending in 1909 read like 2012 but delving into them is not the purpose of this editorial.

Stephen Kristenson, pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church makes the important point that “many use the three churches in almost every conceivable medium, from stained glass to cookies” and he wonders if the three churches shouldn’t explore how some tourism revenue streams might flow back to the stewards of those churches. Kristenson may be on to something; in fact, even just discussing the subject brings awareness to the inequity of the situation.

Let’s return to that “formula” I hinted at earlier. The impact of architectural heritage (and Mahone Bay’s churches is a great example) needs to be quantified and valued by those parties who directly or indirectly benefit from its existence. Municipal governments and businesses are beneficiaries that immediately come to mind.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not one of those artsy socialist types who believe governments should pay for everything and businesses are parasites, I am in fact very pro-business. It could however be convincingly argued that the province’s heritage assets have been treated like parasitic hosts for some time. It’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just how the thing has developed. As parasitic relationships go, some might even be pretty beneficial if they’re sustainable – but Mahone Bay’s situation is not. The heritage assets of Mahone Bay need external help. First, by being identified for their true local and regional value and finally by the establishment of an arms-length, community-based body to assess historic preservation needs. Whether such a body has an independent structure or is an extension of a regional development agency or a historical society is for stakeholders to determine. Ultimately, funding needs to be found, how much and from where would become clearer after a formal cultural and economic values assessment.

Posted by Joe Oct 18, 2012 Posted in Municipal Issues 2 Comments

2 Responses to "Scruples and Steeples"

  1. Where does one begin when they want to see preserved their beautiful 200 year old church that has a dwindling congregation with little interest in its maintenance? The St Andrews United church in Williamstown needs help to organize to take care of the old beauty. Any advice on where to start would be welcome. We have visited Mahone Bay and its churches twice now and we recognize the importance of keeping these gems for future generations.

  2. Community Development says:

    Hello! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new project in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a marvellous job!