MAHONEY: A piece of our soul, for sale
I’m no realtor but let me take you through a very special building.
It’s one of Hamilton’s great historic stone landmarks, and its owners, ruefully acknowledging they can’t keep it going, have just announced it’s going up for sale.
As you consider purchasing James Street Baptist Church (that’s right, THE James Street Baptist Church; listing goes up next Tuesday) you should know some things.
It’s a fixer-upper. No, wait. That’s not what you think.
The church is the one that’s done the fixing up. People have come to it, for as long as it has stood (130 years), but especially lately, when they’re broken and in need.
The building, right downtown, has reached out its workshop hands and gathered them in. It has fed them, clothed them, made repairs. Often, the people break again. The church never gives up, never breaks faith with them.
It was the first building to open its doors to the homeless in the winter months as part of Hamilton’s Out of the Cold program. It runs an emergency food cupboard and small groups that meet monthly, including James Street KIDS and Amazing Moms. It is right downtown, close to both the YMCA and YWCA. It is ideally positioned, like St. Paul’s Presbyterian beside it, in the middle of the greatest need.
It has, under the inspired musical ministry of worship pastor Christopher Claus, poured the most healing sounds into the wounds of the whole community with its various concerts and album re-enactments (The Who, Pink Floyd and, of course, The Beatles). It has asked nothing in return.
That’s just a bit of what you’re getting, when you buy this building that is more than a building. With the reach of its Gothic Revival façade and distinctive stone work, it is a defining feature of the downtown streetscape. Its cornerstone was laid by Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s second prime minister and a Baptist. It’s the church where John Munro’s funeral was held in 2003.
Steve Kennedy, who joined the church with wife Lisa in the 1980s, is a James Baptist trustee and as I sit with him at his table, he has documents piled in front of him. Building assessment reports, a history of the church to 1944, written by Chester New and George Gilmour, after whom are named Chester New Hall and Gilmour Hall at McMaster, reflecting the church’s role in the development of the university.
There’s another history, to 1969, written by John McMillan, a current and long-time member of the church, the oldest surviving Baptist church in Hamilton.
“The membership peaked in 1917 at 847,” Steve says. “Now it’s down to fewer than 70.”
The congregation just recently finished paying off the $3.2 million it spent on repairs, upgrades and wheelchair accessibility 20 years ago. That bill was supposed to have been $1.5 million. That happens, especially with heritage buildings; James Baptist was designated in 2004.
Assessment reports point to an uneasy road ahead, in terms of building upkeep if it remains a church.
“We don’t want to face something comparable to what we just got out from under,” says Steve. “People are sad to see it come to this. The whole city goes by this corner, but we’re resigned to the fact that we have to find a new home.”
Says Christopher Clause, “We all love the building but it’s not meeting our needs.”
The congregation is committed to inner city core programming and helping the community. That’s the kind of church it is and wants to continue to be, says Steve.
“But our finances right now are being funnelled into maintaining the building.”
Recently, the church had to remove the building’s turret, for safety reasons. It cost $20,000, partly because all the original stone has to be preserved, due to the heritage designation.
The congregation is looking for another space, says Steve, possibly rental or non-traditional — in the area, they hope. Mostly they hope new owners will preserve the building in its present design, not demolish it or radically alter its character.
Let’s hope. The building has been very good to Hamilton when we’ve needed it. Now it needs us.
It’s a familiar ordeal in Hamilton — the struggle over what to do with our aging, historically important building stock as we try to keep the city’s body and soul together, so to speak.
Maggie Steele, sales representative with Halton Heritage Realty Inc. Brokerage, says the building is being listed for $1.1 million.
“It’s such a beautiful building. It would make such a great restaurant, grocery store with coffee shop ... we really want to see it kept intact,” says Maggie.