Steeple chase

Brian Jones
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The fallen steeple of the old St. Philip’s Anglican Church is in the national news again this week — the Heritage Canada Foundation has declared the church “one of the country’s top 10 endangered places.”

There’s no doubt about it — that old church was stunningly beautiful before somebody sawed through the steeple and sent it crashing ignobly to the ground. To paraphrase a popular religious saying, that probably isn’t what Jesus would have done.

A fallen steeple isn’t on par with a fallen archangel, but objective observers can’t help but be perplexed that the righteous purveyors of rectitude — parish and diocese leaders — didn’t even bother to ask police to investigate the wanton vandalism that created headlines from St. John’s to Victoria.

Their desire to have the old building torn down apparently transcends moral or legal considerations.

On the other side of this dark argument, the Church By the Sea Committee and the Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s town council have succeeded in their efforts to protect the old church as a heritage structure.

It’s hard to argue against that designation. The setting and backdrop of the old church is so spectacular that it has been featured on postcards.

Church sold

And yet, town residents must be left wondering whether a scenic background is a fundamental requirement for heritage designation.

Several miles away, there was another aged church that looked quite similar to the Gothic style of the old St. Philip’s Anglican Church.

St. Lawrence Anglican Church was nestled on a quiet road in the old section of Portugal Cove.

It was the second or third building on the site, which had been used for a church for about two centuries.

On one side of the church was a road, and on the other side flowed tiny Main River. Behind the church, there was an 1800s cemetery overgrown with trees. A parking lot was in front.

About six years ago, the St. Lawrence parish moved to a new church nearby. The old church, steeple and all, was put up for sale. It is now a residence and secondhand shop.

Architecturally and historically, the old St. Lawrence Anglican Church was the equal of the old St. Philip’s Anglican Church. The main difference was that the former was landlocked, while the latter enjoyed a famous view of the blue waters of Conception Bay.

No debate

There was no controversy when the old St. Lawrence Anglican Church was put up for sale.

Nobody established a Church By the River Committee.

Nobody talked about heritage.

The town council was largely uninvolved and uninterested. Local residents, myself included, talked mostly with curiosity about what the asking price might be.

Thankfully, the building is still there. It is still lovely and picturesque, despite a hideous mural painted on its steeple.

These days, too many arguments are won simply by referring to history, culture, heritage or 500 years of this or that.

It is, of course, easy to see the rightness of preserving and saving the old St. Philip’s Anglican Church.

But the wrongness of the way it is being pursued is overpowering.

You don’t have to be Anglican, or even religious, to see that it would be highly offensive to establish a museum in the midst of a graveyard.

In fact, any use for the building other than as a place of worship would be difficult to defend. To parishioners, it is hallowed ground.

The best solution is to state the truth: that old church is widely loved and admired because it is so stunningly pretty.

So, preserve it and keep it, but don’t use it. And don’t make parishioners pay a cent for it.

If the public and the town council want to preserve it, they should pay for it.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at

The Telegram. He can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Anglican Church, Sea Committee, The Telegram

Geographic location: Portugal Cove, Victoria, Main River

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Recent comments

  • Keith in Brampton
    August 13, 2010 - 14:59

    A well-written article. Your conclusions 100% match my own: if the public and town want to keep it, they must assume 100% responsibility for the maintenance, and any usage should be in keeping with the location (it should be noted that, as it sits in the middle of Church property, the church would have the right to control access by the simple expedient of retaining all easement rights and granting restricted access on an application basis; this would be necessary to prevent interference with the church's normal use of its own property, such as its privately owned parking lot during services - including weddings and funerals). As for your WWJD question: Jesus would certainly frown on the actions of those who have been obstructing the desire of the church to pull down the old building. This focus on materialism and a building instead of on spirit and faith is in direct opposition to many of his teachings, and the strife this has caused is without doubt a serious breach of his commandment to "love thy neighbour as thyself". Likewise, the church pursuing legal action against those who tore down the steeple would have gone against Jesus' teachings about love and forgiveness - and would have been the heights of hypocrisy given that those who caused the damage were in fact doing exactly what the church itself wants to do. The town abused its powers in rushing through the heritage designation the way it did. There are those that claim they now have the court's backing; not so. The Board who heard the appeal said they did not have jurisdiction; they made no ruling on the merits. Unfortunately, the enabling statute is not at all clear as to where the right of appeal lies (one of many flaws in a poorly written piece of legislation). But if the town is going to push forward with its claim of heritage status, then it is their moral (and possibly legal) obligation to find the funds to preserve the church. Forcing the parish to find the funds is not an option: doing so would be tantamount to religious persecution and therefore likely a breach of the Charter.