By Tina Comeau
Babies were baptized there. People were married there. When people died, their lives were mourned and celebrated there.
And on Sundays people worshipped there.
But last week marked a new era for Zion Baptist United Church – specifically, it marked the end of an era as the demolition of the building got underway.
(You can see videos here and here.)
After months of stripping away the interior of the building, attention turned to the exterior. Stairs leading into the church were broken apart. Bricks were removed from sections of the building and a chimney in the back to protect nearby structures from damage when the church is knocked down. And the bell tower – long an iconic part of the Parade Street landscape – was partially dismantled so the bell inside could be removed.
This week the demolition continues.
“We’ve got a big excavator here and we’ll use that to take it down a little at a time,” explains Marinus Verhagen, owner of Verhagen Demolition Ltd. of New Glasgow. “We’ll start on the back end and then work our way to the front. Once the building is down and gone we’ll put the brick in the basement (to fill the hole) and then we’ll put fill over it and topsoil over that and then put the seed to her.”
The demolition is attracting a lot of interest, along with sadness, given the building’s architecture and its long history in Yarmouth. The church was built in 1895. People stand on the sidewalk watching as more and more of the church is chipped away. Many take photos and can be heard uttering the words, “It’s such a shame.”
But the church’s age has worked against it. Over the years costly and concerning structural issues have arisen. The integrity of exterior walls and the bell tower has been in question due to damage associated with years of water penetration, freezing and thawing. The trustees of the church said the building was in need of repairs that would cost approximately $1 million. The shrinking congregation couldn’t afford to repair and continue to maintain the building, which also led to concerns over liability.
There were some efforts to try and save the church, including by the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia.
And so the last service in the church was held in late December.
Since then everything that could be salvaged inside the church has been, including the organ, pews, inner stained glass panels, cabinetry, books, etc. If something had been donated to the church, those families or individuals were contacted and the items were offered back to them.
Baptist ministers in the area were invited to come in and take what they wanted.
“Anything that had any significance, spiritual ties, went to all of these different churches,” says Rick Pitman, one of the trustees.
Youth groups also benefitted from items. Lastly things were offered to the public.
“The pews went very, very fast,” Pitman says.
The bell that was retrieved from the bell tower – an inscription on it reads: Presented by Hon. John Lovitt, 1900 – will be displayed at the Yarmouth County Museum.
It will cost around $150,000 to demolish the building. The cost is being covered by the church. A demolition contract was put out to tender, first to local companies but because it would have required those companies to send out their workers for weeks of training it wasn’t an appealing or affordable option.
The trustees are pleased with the company that is doing the work, noting they are experts in the field and do demolition work throughout Atlantic Canada.
Although there had been talk in the past about building a new church, this is no longer the plan. Pitman says the congregation just isn’t large enough to justify the building of another church.
“You’ve got to build a congregation back up and most of us are at the age now where you haven’t got the strength and the drive to work hard to build up a congregation,” he says. “You want to move on with your life.”
Those who used to worship at Zion have moved onto other churches, he says. The majority has gone to the Yarmouth North Baptist Church.
But while member of the congregation are starting a new chapter, the church’s trustees, like others, agree this closing chapter of Yarmouth’s history is an emotional one.
“The good Lord gave us this building and we’re trying to see that it’s put to rest properly,” says Pitman. “Still, it’s going to be sad when she comes down.”