New Brunswick

Icon of Saint John skyline faces uncertain future

In 'urgent' financial crisis, Saint John’s Trinity church must 'make some important decisions within the next few months,' says reverend

Despite new life for retail in uptown Saint John, historic churches struggle to remain open

The current building has hosted Sunday services for 136 years. (CBC)

In "urgent" financial crisis, Saint John's Trinity church must "make some important decisions within the next few months," according to Rev. John Paul Westin.

The spire of Trinity Church is a high gothic gem of Saint John's skyline and according to lore, the gilt fish atop the church's 67-metre tall steeple was once used by sailors as a guide as they navigated into port.

The current building has hosted Sunday services for 136 years. But soon, parishioners at the uptown landmark will be forced to consider other venues.

"All of the churches in the uptown are struggling," says Westin, rector at Trinity since last January.

"We have to have an engineering study that costs $38,000. The leaks are in the windows, on the side plaster coming down, in the sacristy. But we can't go forward unless we can come up with the funds to even get the study done."

Trinity Church not alone in struggle

Trinity Church on Germain Street in uptown Saint John (Julia Wright / CBC)
In 2010, nearby Germain Street Baptist Church was put up for sale due to a dwindling congregation  and correspondingly, a dwindling bank account.

While that building subsequently became home to InterAction Children's Theatre, the Gothic Arches on Wentworth Street hasn't fared as well, remaining largely vacant and increasingly dilapidated since 2011 despite one-time plans to renovate the building into condominiums.

Trinity Church is facing many of the same issues. Marje Harrison and her husband, ex-Tory MLA Bev Harrison, have been parishioners since the early 1970s.

"I was a member of the choir, my son was in Sunday school there , all things that don't happen at Trinity anymore. We have no young people. As a worship place, it's not what it was. We've moved on, and we have to move with the world."

While the church's ministry in the south end includes a hot lunch program, a community nurse, and other community events, only 35 to 40 people regularly attend the main Sunday service, according to Harrison.

"It is urgent," Harrison said.

"We have a shortfall every week in our takings: $2,000 or $3,000, sometimes, we are out of pocket every week, just for general maintenance, just because we don't have the people putting the money in the plate."

"There are some people who want to maintain the building no matter what. My answer to them is 'how? With no money?' We don't have enough coming in. We just can't keep it going. I think our money should be going to the people who need it. If we're true Christians, that's what we have to do, not maintain stone walls and wooden pews."

Discussions 'can't be postponed' much longer

Westin says discussions on relocating worship services may be inevitable.

"We postpone difficult decisions. We keep hoping that something will happen, we'll get a windfall and not have to face it," Westin said.

"We've alerted the congregation to the seriousness of our situation, and we have to go down a number of different paths. We're starting that process."

Some of the options being contemplated include moving services into the more modernized Charlotte Street wing of the building, consolidating services with those of nearby Stone Church, or "just shutting it down as far as worship is concerned and just concentrating on outreach," says Harrison.

The significance of the building to the fabric of the uptown, however, can't be overstated, according to Westin.

"It's hard to imagine the Trinity Royal Heritage Conservation Area with Trinity Church missing. It erodes hope, when that sort of thing happens.

"If Trinity Church is closed and torn down, it will be like losing one of the front teeth on the face of the city."