Nova Scotia

St. Mary's Anglican Church in Auburn to celebrate 225th anniversary

This weekend St. Mary’s is celebrating its 225th anniversary and on Sunday a special service is being held that Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, will attend.

St. Mary's was second Anglican church to be consecrated in British North America

St. Mary's Anglican Church is celebrating its 225th anniversary. (CBC)

For her choice of hymns to play on an old pipe organ in a church built in 1790, Johanna Goldenberg doesn't dust off a tune written years ago by some English vicar in a country parish.

Instead, she chooses a contemporary piece. A reflection, she says, that there's still plenty of history to be made at St. Mary's Anglican Church in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.

"This is not a museum," she says. "This is a vibrant, thriving church. It's a wonderful little church, I love it."

This weekend, St. Mary's is celebrating its 225th anniversary and on Sunday a special service is being held that Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, will attend.

Johanna Goldenberg, the church's organist, sits down to play. (CBC)

The church, a provincially-protected heritage site in Auburn, is one of the oldest in Nova Scotia and was the second Anglican church to be consecrated in British North America.

It also remains very much a place of worship, and services are held each Sunday for a small congregation.

It has survived where other churches were sold or knocked down. 

"It's the perseverance of the congregation," says John Decoste, a volunteer at the church. 

"There's always been people here who cared. And they cared about the church and they cared about keeping it the way it was."

The mussel church

There have been some expansions, but otherwise St. Mary's has undergone remarkably few alterations over two centuries. Much of it is still original, from the 12-inch thick support timbers, to the Palladian windows, to the prayer board with the Ten Commandments. The pews are still intact, including the one where Charles Inglis, the first bishop of Nova Scotia, sat.

Even the plaster remains, and has a story all its own. It's been told that the builders were running short on lime, so mussel shells were collected on a beach near Morden. These were crushed and used to supplement the plaster.

"Now that's a legend, but it's a legend we believe," DeCoste says. Locally, St. Mary's became known as the mussel church.

It has come close to destruction, however. In 1981 the steeple was struck by lightning and lit on fire.

Freda Small, a member of the congregation, was one of those who rushed to the scene. The flames were creeping down and the local fire department didn't have equipment that could reach high enough. But firefighters arrived from Kentville and saved the building.

The interior of St. Mary's. (CBC)

"I just couldn't believe that that church would ever be destroyed," Small said

"If God wanted us to worship there, he'd certainly save the church. When the Kentville fire department came, that was an answer to prayer."

These days, however, St. Mary's does face many of the same well-worn challenges that other churches try to tackle.

Its congregation is older and dwindling, and there are some months it's not clear how the bills will be paid.

But the bills ultimately do get covered and those who do attend are faithful and dedicated, DeCoste says.

"The average age of the congregation is not young," DeCoste says. "But for the time being, anyway, we're holding our own."

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