St. Mark's neighbours fight to save their oasis
June 20, 2008
The Hamilton Spectator
In a big room in the bowels of the Hamilton Convention Centre where you can't tell day from night, the planning committee met the other day. They were there because city hall is shut down for repairs that will take a long, long time.
The meeting got under way with agenda item 6.2 -- what to do with old St. Mark's Church. The debate went on for more than 1 1/2 hours, and in the end the matter was sent back to staff for more information.
There was another way to handle the matter.
The politicians and the city staff could have risen from their chairs, headed out into the sunshine and taken a five-minute stroll.
Beyond the old wrought iron fence, they could have explored the front yard of St. Mark's. They could have smelled the roses, marvelled at the white blossoms of the mock orange, sat a spell on the park bench and gazed at the graceful but long-empty parish church, built before the car, before the highrise.
The politicians and city staff would marvel that even though there are three busy lanes of traffic pushing north on Bay and three more rushing west on Hunter, and a sky full of apartment towers all around, it is peaceful here.
And in minutes, those officials would have made their decision. "It's clear," they would have said with a single voice, "this little Shangri-La must stay."
St. Mark's opened in 1878, when the city population was 33,000. The Anglicans had already built four churches in Hamilton and this was the first made of brick. The bell tower, plus a Sunday school at the rear, were added in 1925.
By the 1980s, like many other churches, St. Mark's was in trouble. A For Sale sign went up and in 1994 the city bought St. Mark's for $425,000. There have been many ideas for using the building -- from drop-in centre to offices for city staff -- but none bore fruit.
Over the years, little St. Mark's has been on many council agendas.
This time the city looked at changing the zoning to sell off the property. Most scenarios would have seen the church saved, but put a parking lot in that green space.
That displeased Durand, the densest neighbourhood in Hamilton -- 12,000 people who are a melting pot of rich, poor, young, old, members of the Hamilton establishment and others just off the plane.
The DNA, or Durand Neighbourhood Association, packed the committee meeting. Citizen Gail Burstyn got up and said her piece.
She's a retired real estate agent who lives in a highrise beside St. Mark's. She looks out her bedroom window and sees people enjoying the grounds of St. Mark's -- catching a few rays, taking pictures, walking dogs and, in season, building snowmen.
She came here from Essex County to go to Mac, fell in love with Hamilton and never left.
"It's important to have some sense of nature in the concrete jungle," she says. "There's something spiritual about St. Mark's, a serenity to the place."
Mountain Councillor Terry Whitehead chaired the committee meeting. He said it wasn't fair for the city to be paying for this pint-sized park at St. Mark's, when a similar small-park proposal was turned down in his ward.
Most on the committee weren't around when the city bought St. Mark's. But Whitehead was former mayor Bob Morrow's assistant around that time, and he told the room he remembered why the city got involved in the first place.
"It clearly wasn't about saving open space as much as it was about saving the building," he said.
Not so, says Bill McCulloch, who represented the downtown ward on council at the time. He's 80, and steers clear of city politics now.
It was he who led the charge for the city to buy St. Mark's.
"But the open space is what we were really interested in protecting," he says.
And indeed the heritage designation plaque in front of the church makes particular mention of the "distinctive garden forecourt."
The interior of the church has been stripped, pews, altar, everything. About a dozen of the stained glass windows are intact, donors' names and all.
But four tension rods now hold the building together. The south wall leans 10 degrees. All those years with no one home have taken a toll on St. Mark's.
What if the church had to go? What if the facade was preserved, including that bell tower and that romantic arched front door, with garden growing all around it?
"If they had to take the church down, I'd feel badly," McCulloch says. "But save the open space. Absolutely."