Steeple ripped from church

Dispute over future of historic church building takes bizarre twist; outspoken clergyman goes silent

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on April 1, 2010
Winston Fiander, vice-president of The Church by the Sea in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, removes a rope that was cut from inside the church steeple of the old St. Philip's Anglican Church on Coady's Road as the damaged steeple lies on the ground Wednesday morning. Vandals partially sawed the steeple from its base on the roof of the church and then hauled it down using thick rope and possibly a pickup truck that was seen leaving the area with three men in it, according to a town resident who looked out his window after hearing a loud bang and noticed the steeple was off the church. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

A bizarre act of property damage at the old church in St. Philip's Wednesday morning left many parishioners and townspeople stunned and angered, and wondering what had happened to their normally outspoken spiritual leader.

But in a 25-second voice message to The Telegram Wednesday afternoon, Rev. Edward Keeping, the rector for the St. Philip's Anglican church, served notice that his straightforward and free-speaking ways were over.

Portugal Cove-St. Philip's -

A bizarre act of property damage at the old church in St. Philip's Wednesday morning left many parishioners and townspeople stunned and angered, and wondering what had happened to their normally outspoken spiritual leader.

But in a 25-second voice message to The Telegram Wednesday afternoon, Rev. Edward Keeping, the rector for the St. Philip's Anglican church, served notice that his straightforward and free-speaking ways were over.

"I am not making statements because I've been told by the lawyer and my bishop. So I'm not making any statements at this time. One reason is we're into Holy Week and services and that, so I'm not making any statements until ... well, I probably won't be making any more statements."

A heated debate over the future of the 116-year-old church, which has been vacant for several years, entered a new dimension at just after 8 a.m. when several people went to great lengths to rip the iconic steeple from the roof of the church.

The incident sent the town into an uproar and prompted the council to call an emergency meeting. In a bid to protect the building, council is seeking a court injunction that would make it illegal to damage the property, and passed a motion to seek municipal heritage status for the church.

Town staff and volunteers will also provide around-the-clock security at the site, and the town is posting a $500 reward for information leading to the identity of those responsible for the damage.

"This is very sad," Mayor Bill Fagan said of Wednesday's incident.

Several of the wooden supports for the 15-foot steeple appeared to be cut with a power tool, and the steeple was then pried from its perch and dropped about 30 feet to the ground below. Part of a thick blue nylon rope was found still attached to a beam inside the steeple, and observers believe whoever carried out the act used a heavy vehicle to pull it down.

The steeple plowed peak-first into the ground, landing mere feet from nearby graves and gouging a trench in the grass.

In a testament to the workmanship, the steeple stayed intact, although the small cross that was attached to its crown was nowhere to be found.

The incident occurred a day after the Portugal Cove-St. Philip's town council voted 6-1 to reject an application from the parish for a demolition permit, and after weeks of emotional debate about the fate of the building.

Parish officials want to remove the church in order to expand the cemetery. Another group, called the Church by the Sea, is attempting to gain control of the building in order to establish a heritage museum.

Keeping, who took over the parish a year and a half ago, has led an aggressive campaign to have the structure demolished.

Witnesses say the priest was extremely emotional and vocal following Tuesday's council meeting, and say he had to be restrained by other church officials after removing his jacket and throwing it to the ground in the parking lot.

He criticized council's decision and said he would bring his concerns to the Department of Municipal Affairs.

Sources say Keeping was equally impassioned at a public information session staged by Church of the Sea last Sunday, which drew an estimated 100 area residents.

Steve Sharpe, the president of Church by the Sea and a long-time parishioner of St. Philip's Anglican church, said Keeping told him to stay off church property.

Another member of the group, Winston Fiander, said Keeping made a worrying comment at the information session.

"His parting shot to us was he had a surprise for us. We wondered what that surprise might be, and we're thinking now we know what his surprise was," Fiander told reporters.

Despite the high-profile incident on church property, Keeping was nowhere in sight Wednesday, and that had many wondering why. Many were also questioning why the church warden, who manages the property, was not present.

The church office, which usually opens at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, was closed throughout the day.

A spokesperson for the Anglican Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland called on all sides to "pause" during Holy Week. She said the diocese will issue a statement after Easter.

Construction noises

Bill Lamswood, who lives not far from the church, said he heard construction noises Wednesday morning. He was shocked when he looked out his window and noticed the steeple was missing.

Lamswood, 74, said he observed three people outside the church, but could not identify them.

He regrets not jumping in his pickup and blocking off the access road to the church, which overlooks Conception Bay and Bell Island.

"I was shaking," Lamswood said.

Another area resident, Amy Tucker, was in her basement and said she felt a "thump" shortly after 8 a.m.

Dozens of bewildered and angry residents gathered at the property off Coady's Road following the incident, expressing shock and disbelief that someone would take such action.

Police were called to the scene, but an officer said an investigation cannot be launched unless the property owners - the diocese - file a formal complaint.

Deputy Mayor Jane Tucker defended council's decision to deny the demolition permit.

"It wasn't a decision we made easily. We've been months listening to both sides of this argument."

Tucker said the town sought a legal opinion and advice from the Department of Municipal Affairs.

"We don't think all avenues have been exhausted to try and save that building," she added.

troberts@thetelegram.com