Paul Wilson: Old downtown Hamilton church gets big reno – and $70,000 piano

Some historic churches in the core have a shaky future. But a 130-year-old beauty at Charlton and Hess has just gotten a nearly $2-million boost from its congregation.
Chris Schoon says outreach has much to do with the future of his congregation's renovated church – and the shiny, new piano is part of that. He doesn't play himself, but has other talents. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

We’re not going to church like we used to. That’s no news flash, but it is a problem for the shrinking congregations that do come together in beautiful old structures on Sunday mornings.

All Saints Anglican, for instance, will soon be No Saints. The 400-seat stone church rose at the corner of King and Queen in 1872. A few years ago, a big chunk of the ceiling fell in and the tiny congregation had to start meeting in the parish hall next door. The church is to soon be knocked down for a condo tower.

Due south of there, however, a different story is taking place.

There the congregation of a church that was at risk has just invested nearly $2 million to give a 130-year-old building a future. Some of that money is for work that must be done – fixing a crumbling foundation, replacing a roof past its time.

The church was under wraps earlier this fall. The big restoration began in May. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But here they are spending money too on items that have nothing to do with bricks and mortar. There must be music. So some $60,000 goes to renew the old Casavant organ. And $70,000 is the price tag for that gleaming Schimmel Concert Grand piano up by the altar.

This church sings

"We see ourselves as a singing church," says Chris Schoon, pastor of the First Hamilton Christian Reformed Church.

The province’s first branch of the church opened in Hamilton in 1929, in a brick mission purchased from the Methodists. It stood at Main and Dundurn, where the forlorn and failed Taco Bell stands today. Through the Great Depression, there were just a few dozen families, Dutch immigrants all.

But after the Second World War, membership in the church exploded. Families, big ones, would arrive from the Netherlands on a Friday and be at that sturdy little church on a Sunday. The place was packed.

Meanwhile, at Charlton and Hess, the Baptists were in decline. Their home, built in 1882, was beautiful. But they couldn’t fill it or afford it anymore.

And a divine swap took place, though First Church had to throw in $23,000.

Mother ship in trouble

For years, that worked well. The congregation swelled, and daughter churches were established at Mount Hamilton, Fruitland, Dundas, Ancaster.

The church has great acoustics, which will be even better when the pews come back from the refinishers. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But eventually the mother ship started to list. It was an insular place. "Those early congregations were not involved in the politics of the city," Pastor Schoon says. "It was more, ‘This is our little community where we hang out together.’"

And the newer churches in the outlying districts had sapped some of the main church’s strength. The congregation in the core was old.

In the ‘90s, there was a choice to be made, Schoon explains. Shut the church down and perhaps move to the south edge of town. Or stay and try to do a better job of being part of the community.

They chose option two and the outreach began. They talked to the neighbourhood. It’s a diverse one, with mansions to the south and towers of public housing to the north. New Canadians, single mothers, there were many who could use help. First Church started a bread-and-milk program. And the New Hope Bicycle Co-op was born here.

Now the nursery's noisy

The congregation grew. Staff and students from McMaster, and Redeemer too. Plus new young families moving into the old neighborhood.

"In the year 2000, we had no kids in the nursery," Schoon says. "Now we have 50 kids age five and under. Two-thirds of the congregation is under 45." For Sunday morning service, there can be 300 in the church.

With the brick cleaned, you can once again see the small white crosses at the roofline. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Schoon, 40, arrived a few years ago from Grand Rapids, Michigan, headquarters for the church. His background is Dutch, but he doesn’t speak a word of it. He and his wife, who grew up in Mount Hope, have four kids. Schoon wears jeans and has studs in both ears.

"At our services you have people in three-piece suits and others in t-shirts and jeans," Schoon says. "Some say, ‘It would be nice if people dressed up a little more.’ And others say, ‘It’s sure nice to be comfortable.’"

But this congregation did agree in a vote last February that it made sense to invest in the church. They raised $1 million in cash and pledges from present and past members of the church, and another $800,000 comes from a loan fund run by the denomination.

Back home this month

Work began in May. Since then, the church met at Melrose United on Locke. But this month they came home. They sat on rented chairs, because the refinishing of the pews is not quite complete. The Casavant organ is to be ready for Christmas.

There used to be Baptists in the church at Charlton and Hess, erected in 1882. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The church will be rededicated in a public service on Jan. 11. As for that gorgeous new grand, First Church plans to show it off – along with the building’s exceptional acoustics – in the first of a series of public concerts on Feb. 8. Art shows are coming too.

There are challenges ahead for sure. In the last 20 years, numbers for the Christian Reformed Church across North America have fallen 20 per cent, to about 250,000 members.

But in an old Hamilton neighbourhood, Schoon sees outreach as the answer. Open the doors, let in the light. Says the pastor: "We have to keep learning to listen to our neighbours." 

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.