"We bought another church. Stop laughing."
That was how I broadcast the news to our extended family this summer. We already owned one church building, a former United Church in Nova Scotia. In August we bought a second one, a former Free Methodist Church in rural eastern Ontario.
Why buy a church? Each one has a story.
Sunny Brae, N.S., came first. We were on vacation in Pictou County one summer, a month after the congregation had closed the building. Lorena noticed it in a real estate listing, and wondered if we had time to see it.
I'm an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada and am married to a woman who had always dreamed of owning a church. Lorena grew up immersed in church life, following her father's career as a Free Methodist minister. She is a "PK," a Preacher's Kid, and lived the first 19 years of her life in parsonages next to churches.
A church building was part of day-to-day life, a good place to play music with her brothers and sisters, an extension of the family home. And she grew up with church camps, including one where her family had a little cottage near the camp church, just up a hill from a creek. For many years, Lorena had described her dream to me: a little, white, wood-frame church on a hill on a creek.
That's why I should have been more alert that afternoon in Pictou. The picture in the real estate brochure wasn't clear, but the little church was definitely white. We got in the car and headed southeast out of New Glasgow through Churchville, Springville and Bridgeville. The village signs along the way were bilingual: English and Gaelic.
We came to Sunny Brae, a lovely hamlet where the highway crosses the East River. And there, at the end of the bridge, stood a little, white, wood-frame church. On a hill. On the river. And it was for sale. To my astonishment, I was pretty sure I was going to be buying a church.
An hour later, we were talking to the agent. "How much are they asking?" Four figures. I could have put it on my credit card.
We went back the next day with the agent and took a good look at it. Then we returned to Ottawa, talked it over with our children and put in an offer. It was hard to lowball the vendor. How do you make an offer on a church when one of you is a PK and the other is a minister? We offered the asking price, and church officials accepted it with relief. We learned later that a gunsmith, a snowmobile club and a trucking firm were apparently interested in converting the church building into a firing range, a clubhouse or a warehouse. The community was glad we bought it, and has enjoyed our use of it as a family retreat.
It still looks like a church from the outside. Inside, it's a roomy cottage with good acoustics, a kitchen area in one corner and a three-piece bathroom. You can play badminton or music. We put in a pump organ and bring an electronic keyboard and a harp each summer. Friends drop by with flutes, guitars and mandolins. One night we hosted a ceilidh attended by many of the older people who used to worship there. It's not feasible as a cold-weather residence, but all four of our children have enjoyed summer vacations at The Church. So have many relatives and friends.
So why buy another church?
This one has a family connection and comes with a house. It was Lorena's first home, her father's first church.
Her father was ordained in 1950 and sent to serve the Gunter Free Methodist Church halfway between Madoc and Bancroft, Ont. The family stayed for two years, and Lorena was born there.
The Free Methodists decommissioned the church 20 years ago. The parsonage and church stood empty, and fell into disrepair, but a descendant of one of the church families bought the property with both buildings on it. Using the sanctuary as his workshop, he renovated the parsonage and put it up for sale.
When Lorena first saw the real estate listing, it wasn't described as a church. It was simply a rural house for sale with another building on the property, but it looked vaguely familiar to her. She asked her three older siblings about it, and they recognized their late parents' first parsonage.
We bought it.
Some of my clergy friends do tease me: "That's the worst two-point charge I've ever seen - 1700 kilometres apart!" Yes, but I don't actually have to preach in either church. In fact, my family members prefer it if I don't.
My son Rob - another PK, of course - wondered how many churches it takes to be a denomination. Good question. There is a denomination in Luxembourg with only one church. Some congregations don't have any building - they meet in homes or rent space. So now we have more churches than many congregations and at least one denomination: a summer getaway in Nova Scotia and a four-season family retreat, central for our clan of about three dozen people.
The third reason for buying a church is simply that they are coming up for sale as Canada changes. The rural infrastructure of the early 20th century is no longer needed. Across the country, aging and dwindling populations no longer use the railway stations, schools, post offices, community centres, halls and churches that were so important to their grandparents and great-grandparents.
What will become of these places with such rich history and distinctive architecture? I hope some of them will be as loved and lived in as our two churches.
Tom Sherwood lives in Ottawa.
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