Brantford council reneges on protecting murals in church listed for $1

Brantford city councillors met Monday to discuss options including potentially buying the historic church on Peel Street that was listed for $1 earlier this month.
St. Jude's Anglican Church in Brantford, built in 1871, is up for sale with an asking price of $399,999, after being previously listed for $1. (Michael-John Idzerda)

The historic murals painted 80 years ago in a St. Jude's church won't be protected after a vote by Brantford city councillors Monday.

The councillors held a special meeting Monday and ended up in a 4-4 tie vote on the question of designating the church a heritage property. That means that designation that they voted for 7-2 last week in committee won't be applied. 

Those opposed to the designation said they didn't want to impose something on private owners against their wishes.

That reasoning came despite the fact that last week, the city's heritage committee chairman appeared before the council, citing an Ontario Superior Court decision from 2003 saying that "the request for consent by the owner to the historical designation of the church was not consistent either with general interpretation or the purpose of the Ontario Heritage Act."

The attention came after the owners of the church listed it for $1, hoping to see what would offers it would bring. But the national attention from the story in CBC News and elsewhere caught the notice of heritage preservationists in Brantford, who called for the city to add some protections to the building, especially its art-covered interior.

That's why the owners of the church claim they didn't get any offers that met their expectations, and they relisted for $399,999.

Last week, city councillors moved in a committee meeting to follow the heritage committee's recommendation and designate the murals, which were painted in the 1930s. That would restrict owners from demolishing murals and components that got the church recognized as a national heritage site in 1993. The church was built in 1871. 

But the owners said that move was complicating their ability to sell. And in the meeting Monday, council changed its mind. 

Over the weekend, it appeared the city might even buy the church. 

A closed-session agenda for the special council meeting Monday said the council would meet about a "potential real estate acquisition" for 81 Peel Street, the address of the church.

Councils meet in closed session to get legal advice and consider options about a number of categories, including the "proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the municipality or local board."

'This property is unique, and incredible'

"This property is unique, and incredible," said Brantford Mayor Chris Friel in a city meeting to discuss imposing the heritage protection last week. "And it should not be lost."

At the same meeting, Coun. Dan McCreary brought up a 2010 episode when Brantford made national news for demolishing 41 buildings, some of which predated Confederation.

The church features ornate decoration and large murals depicting stories from the life of Jesus that were painted in 1936 by a prestigious church painting family, the Brownes. (Michael-John Idzerda)

"Do you really want to be on the front page of the Toronto Star again, as 'Brantford, the city that doesn't care about its own heritage'?" he said.

But other councillors, like Coun. Richard Carpenter, expressed concern about the city imposing standards on private owners' property without putting funding up to help them maintain the heritage elements.

That was the position of Andrea Murik, who bought the church last year with her partner, Nick Dushko. She said it wasn't fair to slap the owners with the designation when the Anglican diocese was allowed to sell it without those protections last year.

"It got publicity that 'Brantford doesn't care about heritage', and we're the ones who are going to pay the price for it," Murik said.