Fredericton heritage churches need government help to avoid wrecking ball, advocates say

The former St. John the Evangelist Anglican church in Fredericton is at risk of being demolished. (Aidan Cox/CBC - image credit)
The former St. John the Evangelist Anglican church in Fredericton is at risk of being demolished. (Aidan Cox/CBC - image credit)

Heritage advocates say the City of Fredericton and other levels of government should take a more active role in saving a 167-year-old church and others like it.

The stone church on Main Street hasn't been used for worship in 10 years. It's plagued with mould and needs a new roof at a cost of about $51,000.

With the parish council unable to afford the repairs and no longer wanting to spend thousands a year keeping it heated and maintained, it's now considering having the structure torn down.

Given the significance of the church as one of the oldest in Fredericton, the city should step up to help save it, said Jeremy Mouat, president of Fredericton Heritage Trust.

Aidan Cox/CBC
Aidan Cox/CBC

"I would say that we should try a lot harder to find ways to repurpose the stone church, and that those efforts to try and repurpose the church, I think, ought to be led by the city," Mouat said.

"I think the city does have a responsibility to be stewards of the built heritage of the city."

Marion Beyea, past president of the Association Heritage New Bunswick, said the provincial government should also be a partner in saving the church, but the province lacks any policy for doing so.

Lauren Bird/CBC
Lauren Bird/CBC

"It would just be a terrible loss to have it come down, and it would also be very pointless," Beyea said. "It's a fine building that could be used in many ways."

City considered helping save building: parish council

Bill MacKenzie, a warden for the old church, said a new church for the parish was built in 2010.

In 2021, the parish council came to a consensus that the building be torn down, however, backlash from others in the community prompted a halt to that plan, he said.

MacKenzie said the parish council was then approached by staff with the City of Fredericton who came out to inspect the building and decide if there was a role the city could play in fixing and selling it to an organization for an alternate use.

Aidan Cox/CBC
Aidan Cox/CBC

"They did have a discussion about it at, I believe, a January [2022] closed meeting with council, and council decided not to proceed with taking on an active role in repurposing the church," MacKenzie said.

CBC News asked the city what considerations it gave to help save the old church.

In an email, spokesperson Shasta Stairs said the city has not received an application or permit request for heritage status for the old stone church.

"Should this occur in the future, there is a formal process and steps that the city will follow," she said.

"Any thoughts on what role the city should or could take would be speculation at this point."

Mark Taylor, a spokesperson for the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture said in an email there is not a specific policy for the conservation of religious-built heritage.

He said by request, the province can designate a site, structure or place determined to be significant to the heritage of New Brunswick but such a designation does not provide financial support.

Parks Canada spokesperson Megan Hope said in an email the department provides financial assistance, but only to federally designated national historic sites, heritage lighthouses and heritage railway stations.

Lauren Bird/CBC
Lauren Bird/CBC

MacKenzie said the parish at one time applied to have the church designated a national heritage site, but it was rejected because of an extension that was added on the building in the 1950s or 1960s.

More preservation dilemmas incoming

The deconsecrated church on Main Street isn't the only sacred building the city should be looking at helping to save, Mouat said.

A June 2022 report by an engineering firm found the Christ Church Cathedral, an Anglican church in downtown Fredericton, is in need of repairs amounting to as much as $12 million.

With the number of Canadians who identify as Christian on the decline, Mouat said it's likely the parish could find itself challenged to keep up with the repair and maintenance costs in the future.

Without revenue sources outside of donations from the congregation, Mouat said the fate of the iconic structure could one day be thrown into question.

"Trying to imagine seeing it being destroyed brings home how … we see the landscape around us with the Green and the cathedral, and it ought to be the case for similar structures as well," Mouat said.

"It seems to me that figuring out ways in which we can save buildings like the stone church forces us to try and think of what we want for the environment in which we live."