Nova Scotia

Cape Breton church community captures vacationers with kindness

When congregation numbers tend to dwindle amid summer vacations and cottage trips, St. Ann's Bay United Church on the Bras d'Or Lakes is seeing more people in the pews.

St. Ann's Bay United Church's congregations jumps by 30 per cent each summer

The congregation of St. Ann's Bay United Church grows by 30 per cent every summer. (St. Ann's Bay United Church/Facebook)

There can be more people in the choir than in the pews of St. Ann's Bay United Church during the winter months.

Not so during the summer. 

The church is nestled along Cape Breton's Cabot Trail and its congregation swells by 30 per cent when the weather starts to warm up. In contrast one of the largest United Church congregations in the province, St. Andrew's in Halifax, shrinks by up to 75 per cent in summer.​

Tourists and summer vacationers from as far away as the United Kingdom come year after year to St. Ann's Bay United Church. Their financial support also comes in year-round — making up a quarter of the church's annual income.

"It's a big boost," said Rev. Hazel Jane Morris. "We always look forward to them returning." 

Centre of social events

Like many churches in rural parts of the province, St. Ann's Bay United plays a central role in the community of St. Anns Bay, especially in the summer.

It's the venue for almost all of the social and cultural events, including one of Cape Breton's most well-attended summer ceilidhs, held twice weekly.

St. Ann's Bay United's Tea Room Ceilidh is a big tourist draw. (Submitted by Bettina Belt)

Morris said the warmth and hospitality of the people in the community tends to stick with people after they leave the island.

Every summer the people come back. Some have even made permanent commitments.

"Three or four families have told me that they were here on a holiday driving the Cabot Trail and came across property for sale," she said.

"They gave it some thought, and came back and bought it. It's just something special about the scenery and the people. You can't quite put your finger on it."

Laying roots on the island

In 2005, John Carothers and his wife Bettina Belt came from their home in Bedminister, N.J., on holiday. Within a year, they'd purchased land. They now live in St. Anns Bay for six months, minus a day — the longest Canadian immigration laws will allow.

Carothers said it was the geography that drew them here, but it's the community in St. Anns Bay that keeps them coming back.

"Everyone here has a strong sense of shared benefit, and we love that connection," he said. "People take care of one another. Canadians are friendly to begin with, but the sense of community here. The respectfulness."

Carothers and Belt both sing in the choir, volunteer at most of the church events and make a donation every month — even while in New Jersey.

John Carothers and Bettina Belt, from New Jersey, now spend half their year on Cape Breton Island. (Submitted by Bettina Belt)