Nova Scotia

Saving St. George's: Sydney's oldest building needs major upgrades

St. George's Anglican Church is deteriorating fast and the parish's heritage committee is trying to raise funds to repair it.

Parish's heritage committee trying to raise funds to repair the building

St. George's was built in 1785 to serve the Sydney Garrison established by the British military. (Hal Higgins/CBC)

Nestled among some stately trees on a quiet north-end block near downtown Sydney, N.S., St. George's Anglican Church doesn't look like a building in trouble.

But Cape Breton's oldest church, constructed in 1785, is most decidedly starting to show the signs of advanced age, according to Michelle Gardiner, the chair of the parish's heritage committee.

The stone building has considerable historical significance, having been the first permanent structure built in Sydney after the Sydney Garrison was established by Gov. Joseph Frederick DesBarres.

'A state of ruin'

The trouble began five years ago when the water pipes leading to the furnace froze, causing a major leak that resulted in a flood.

"The church was left in a state of ruin," said Gardiner.

Afterward, parish council basically decided to close the building, which had been used only for special occasions in recent years, Gardiner said.

Animators greet cruise ship visitors to St. George's Church in Sydney, N.S. (Hal Higgins/CBC)

"No other actions were taken and no monies were put into the upkeep of the building," she said. 

The floodwaters dried up and a mould problem was solved, but parish council decided not to continue heating the building.

That decision has taken its toll.

Plaster is falling off the walls, and the Casavant organ installed in 1910, although still in decent shape, might not survive one or two more winters without heat.

Fundraising efforts

With that in mind, Gardiner, who became a champion for the building three years ago when she led a movement to open it for cruise ship visitors, has vowed that the church will have heat this winter "to do no more harm to the building."  

As it turns out, those cruise ship passengers have supported the cause by making donations, which they drop into a water jug set up beside the guest book in the church.

Michelle Gardiner, dressed in period costume, outlines the history of St. George's Church for a group of tourists from a cruise ship in Sydney harbour. (Hal Higgins/CBC)

"So far this season we've raised over $5,000," said Gardiner, who dresses in period costume as an animator during cruise ship tours.

She's counting on a fundraising concert in December to yield a similar amount so that the annual cost of heating the church — about $10,000 — is covered.

Government grants

As chair of the Anglican Parish of the Resurrection's heritage committee, Gardiner has already begun the process of applying for government grants. The Cape Breton Regional Municipality has confirmed that as a registered municipal heritage property, St. George's is eligible to apply under its heritage incentive program.

Gardiner said some other government grants for repairs are contingent on the applicant raising about 10 per cent of the funds first. 

"If that roof costs us $40,000 or $50,000 to put on, we need to raise $4,000 or $5,000 of our own money to put into that. We have to fundraise."

Gardiner said she looks forward to the day when the historic structure passes from the hands of the Anglican Church to the general public.  

"My vision for St. George's is that St. George's goes back to the people of CBRM. St. George's is the ancestral home of our community."