Beautiful churches, but upkeep costly

You think your heating bills are high? Be glad you aren't in charge of the St. Chad's building in Regina, where thousands of dollars were spent last winter to keep things toasty.

Some old Saskatchewan churches have been carefully preserved, others have been abandoned to the elements

You think your heating bills are high?

Be glad you aren't in charge of the St. Chad's building in Regina, where thousands of dollars were spent last winter to keep things toasty.

The Anglican Diocese of Qu'Appelle was paying $2,000 a month to keep the chill away from the 98-year-old Regina building, although thanks to some renovations, the bills are expected to be lower this winter, according to archdeacon Rob Hardwick.

St. Chad's,  once a theological school for the training of young men for the ministry, has important historical significance for the diocese.

Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Prince Albert recently underwent a repainting and an interior renovation. ((Google Street View))

The Collegiate Gothic-style building has been restored to near-original condition, complete with some period furniture.

But maintaining beautiful old buildings is not cheap or easy, church officials say.

Leaky roofs, cracking paint, basements that flood and shifting foundations that can sometimes become dangerous are just some of the common problems.

Moisture can deteriorate the old wood and paint inside the church. And when the foundation begins to shift, so too do the walls.

Any renovations have to be done in accordance with provincial guidelines for historical buildings — not always the cheapest option, Hardwick said.

"You have to use similar or like material to how it was built in the first place," Hardwick said. "We have cracks in the building, so we have to try and find out what consistency the mortar was so that [the] building looks the same as when it was first built."

The building begins

In the earlier decades of the last century, when waves of European immigrants arrived on the Prairies, they often came with little more than their family, a small suitcase of belongings and their faith.

They lived in modest homes, yet came together to build sometimes dazzling places of worship.

One of them is in the hamlet of Wroxton, near the Manitoba border. There the visitor sees magnificent onion-style domes atop St. Elias Church, a designated heritage property.

As the 20th century moved forward, there were huge demographic and societal changes in Saskatchewan, including a migration of people from rural areas to the cities and a decline in church attendance.
This old church near Laura, Sask., shown here in a 2009 Google Street View image, is one of many around the province that have been abandoned to the elements. ((Google Street View))

Today, dozens of small, rural, decades-old churches — owned not only by Anglicans, but also the Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox and other denominations — are still in use, but others have been sold or abandoned.

Some buildings in the cities, like 98-year-old Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina, the flagship of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, have been carefully preserved and on Sundays the pews are full.

Services also continue at Saskatchewan's oldest church, Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Stanley Mission, which celebrated  its 150th birthday this June.

On the other end of the scale are run-down buildings like the long-abandoned church at Laura, southwest of Saskatoon. Google Street View images from 2009 showed the paint was peeling, the shingles were falling off and the roof was sagging.

New uses for old churches

Bishop Gregory Kerr-Wilson, who leads the Archdiocese of Qu'Appelle, said that while it's sad that old churches sometimes need to be sold, maintenance costs can make it necessary.

From a peak of more than 200 Anglican churches in the province, only about 130 now remain, he said.

"Interestingly enough, we've discovered that sometimes selling them is a good way of keeping them up," Kerr-Wilson said. "They buy the church and then they renovate it and turn it into an art studio and then the historic building gets kept up."

Kerr-Wilson says even people without religious convictions believe it's important to save old church buildings as landmarks and reminders of Saskatchewan's history.

Preserving religious institutions like St. Chad's also sends out an optimistic message, Hardwick said.

"There's a thrill to know that we're not dying, everything's not decaying and rotting, deteriorating or being sold, and we have a future," Hardwick said. "It's a great signal to a community that we're alive and want to continue."