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The Stolen Church at the Merville Community Association | George Le Masurier photos
The Stolen Church now repaying history with new life in Merville
Who says historic Comox Valley buildings from the early 1900s can’t be fully restored and recommissioned for future generations?
Not Craig Freeman.
The president of the Merville Community Association just points to the second relocation and recent restoration of St. Mary’s Church, which made its debut in September during the community’s 100-year celebration.
“There’s a lot of things you can do with an old building,” Freeman told Decafnation this week. “They get dilapidated, sure, but we can repair them. It’s no big deal.”
Freeman is one of the board members of the Merville Community Association who works in the construction industry and oversaw the move and renovation of the church and its companion building that once housed a Sunday school. Pete Birch is a recent board member who also helped on the church renovation.
The “Stolen Church” — so named because it was originally built in Tsolum in 1915 and moved to Merville in 1919 to serve WWI veterans residing in the soldier settlement there — has shed its worn down condition and its barn red colour.
Today, the church is painted a bright blue with a new metal roof, refinished original wood floors and original stained glass window all sitting on top of a sturdy concrete and foam block foundation. The interior has been double insulated and rewired.
Outside, local craftsman Bill Enns made a new custom solid cedar door with handmade old-style wrought iron hinges.
The Stolen Church sits on the community association’s three-acre property just north of the Merville Store. The property also hosts a playground, a site for a future community garden and, of course, the iconic Merville Hall, which itself has undergone a major renovation.
A solar grid on the hall’s new metal roof captures enough energy to power the church for a net positive energy consumption.
“I don’t know why people let these buildings go,” Freeman said.
He got involved with the community association 15 years ago because a musical group he plays with, Fiddlejam, had been using the Merville Hall for concerts and dances. He wanted to see the hall maintained and not lost to the community.
The main hall has been fixed up, too, with a bright yellow exterior paint job — courtesy of volunteers from local scout troops, musicians and painters in 2010 — its own metal roof, a solar power array installed on the roof and multiple interior improvements.
Freeman sees other historic buildings around the Valley that are worthy of saving and put back to public uses.
A couple of years ago, he wrote a letter to the editor offering the Town of Comox an alternative to their plan to tear down the heritage home of famous naturalist Mack Laing, called Shakesides.
“I just don’t understand why they don’t renovate that building so we (Merville Community Association) offered to do that and give it a home up here, if they wanted to move it,” Freeman said. “The Valley has lost too many historic buildings already.”
HISTORY OF STOLEN CHURCH
Grantham area farmers built the church in 1915 near where the Tsolum School stands today. For $200, the church served the Anglican community. But soon, in 1919, there was a greater need in the Merville area, where the Canadian government had offered land to WWI vets through the Soldier Settlement project.
So volunteers pulled the church on skids with a tractor up the gravel road. An unused army hut was later moved to the church site from the WWII Sandwick Camp and became a place to hold Sunday school classes.
The Anglican diocese finally gave up on the little church in 2003. It went through several ownerships until Alison and Brad Orr purchased it in 2013.
Not wanting the buildings to decay beyond saving, Freeman offered to move both to the Merville Hall site and restore them. The Orrs sold them for a dollar apiece in 2015.
The community association raised funds and acquired grants for the project. They hired Nickel Brothers to move them and, with the help of community volunteers, prepared foundations and made the move up the Island Highway into a nightime parade-like event.
WHAT IT COST
Although Freeman has the skills to have done most of the work himself and a few friends, the association contracted out the drwall, concrete entrance and electrical. He says they wanted to get it done in time for the Merville 100 Years Celebration in September, 2019.
It cost $15,000 to move each of the two buildings, and they spent another $10,000 or so on the foundations, electrical and drywall. Even including the new roof, Freeman estimates the whole project has cost less than $50,000.
This year, in preparation for the launch of the Dancing in Gumboots book and the 100 years eventr, Wonder Womem volunteers did landscaping with fruits trees and sunflowers; they removed rocks, pulled weeds and kept watering all summer long.
Freeman anticipates that rentals of the Stolen Church for weddings, yoga classes, meetings and other small functions will eventually make it a profitable venture.
The community association has a small membership that survives through its rental of the main hall, a small grant-in-aid for insurance from the Comox Valley Regional District, a summer farmer’s market and fundraising spearheaded by Freeman and consultant Dawn Ringrose.
But changes are coming.
Kymme Patrick’s TheatreWorks for the Performing Arts is in the process of moving her production and teaching school from Tin Town to the Merville Hall. The company provides theatre programs for youth and has been instrumental in using theatre as an educational tool with schools and organizations in the Comox Valley.
And they have fenced a large plot of their land for a future community garden. It already has water access and piles of skyrocket compost waiting for gardeners to spread and enhance the soil.
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