Nfld. & Labrador

The oldest church in Grand Falls-Windsor is stripped to the studs

A local contracting company is volunteering its time to help the St. Matthew's Presbyterian Church rebuild after an October fire.

Volunteers are helping to rebuild the structure after fire

Lucien Forbes, back, hauls away some construction alongside another volunteer inside of the St. Matthew's Presbyterian Church in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Volunteers are ripping away wood from a burned-out building in Grand Falls-Windsor, gutting the town's oldest church structure for the first time since it was built in 1910.

St. Matthew's Presbyterian Church is being renovated after it was damaged in a fire in October. Bob Thompson, chair of the church's board of managers, says it's the biggest renovation in the church's 110-year-history.

"We're eliminating everything now, taking it right back down to the studs," he said. "Ceilings, floors, walls and everything. Upstairs and downstairs."

A ladder leans against damaged wood inside of St. Matthew's Presbyterian Church in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Thompson is pledging that the church will be rebuilt, and the board is getting by with big help from its friends — a local contractor, Triple-A Construction, has volunteered its labour to help reconstruct the historic building.

Others are coming forward as well, including a group offering to restore some furniture that was damaged in the fire, as well as the pulpit and communion table. 

Bob Thompson is the chair of the board of managers at St. Matthew's Presbyterian Church. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The building caught fire on Oct. 18. Thompson told CBC News that investigators have been unable to determine the cause. Although the fire was contained to one area of the building, smoke damage spread, and Thompson said just about everything needs to be removed.

Even the steeple was taken off the church building, and will be repaired on the ground.

"All the interior was completely damaged," he said.

On Wednesday, volunteers were ripping out fire-damaged wood. Norm James, the head of Triple-A Construction, said he hopes to have the repairs done in a year.

"It just hit me that we needed to do something to help out," he said. "I just figured it would be a nice thing, a nice gesture to approach Bob and have a talk to the church board, which we did. And so we just took it on."

In the meantime, parishioners are meeting elsewhere — the next service will be held at an Anglican church building in Grand Falls-Windsor.

Thompson said without volunteers, it would be much harder to get the church repaired.

Flames can be seen through the windows of St. Matthew's church on Oct. 18. A fire severely damaged the interior of the building, although the exterior does not need major work. (Vince MacKenzie/Twitter)

"We have insurance, but it's not going to be enough insurance to completely do everything that's needed to be done here, right, so the volunteer help and the volunteer time and labour is going to be well worth it," he said.

"It's going to be money that we don't have to pay contractors full price to do the work, right? So it's going to be a great, great help."

A firefighter shines a light inside St. Matthew's Presbyterian Church in Grand Falls-Windsor in October. Thompson says the fire was a shock to the whole community. (St. Matthew's Presbyterian Church, Grand Falls-Windsor, NL/Facebook)

According to the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, the church building was constructed in 1910, the year after the town's paper mill opened.

Bob Thompson said the very first church service performed in the developing town took place in this building.

And although the congregation has dwindled — down below 100, from a high of more than 300 — Thompson said the church has been such a big part of community life that people are coming forward to help out.

A church window at St. Matthew's shows signs of fire damage one month after the incident. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"This church has been here so long, it's in the character of Grand Falls-Windsor," said Lucien Forbes, a senior parishioner in the church who also works with the Grand Falls-Windsor Heritage Society.

Forbes is volunteering himself, and said there will be no problem finding more volunteers in the community.

"If we did lose it, it would have been a shame. It would have been an empty space here that everybody was pointing to."

And even as the volunteers used chainsaws and hammers to break up the damaged sections, Forbes said it wasn't hard to appreciate the history in the building.

Lucien Forbes is volunteering to do construction work as church authorities are reconstructing the building. Before he returned to Newfoundland and Labrador, Forbes said, he worked in oil and gas construction. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"You know, the old woodwork. I think I pointed out that beam that looked like it was done by a shipbuilder, the way he shaped it. And no doubt they were shipbuilders in those days that were carpenters that built the first churches," he said.

"I'd say most of it was volunteer work at that time, too. So we're just carrying on." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

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