Avery Jackson climbs a set of steep wooden stairs in the front of the church, through a hole in the ceiling, up more stairs, and finally ascends an aluminum ladder to the top of the bell tower.
It’s a long way up.
He removes a hatch cover and pulls himself through a hole in the roof. It’s the giant bell he wants to see. He heard it toll when he was a kid and that deep, clapper-on-steel tintinnabulation changed his life.
He grew up on the Clarence Road. Now he and a group of other locals want to breathe new life into the old church and the old community hall in what they hope is the beginning of a rural revival.
“I think I was 12, and I live just down the road, and I heard the church bell ringing one Sunday morning,” he said. “I never really went to church before that, to this building. That kind of sparked my interest then. I started getting involved in coming here and doing things for the building.”
“I want it to continue to make history, in a sense, by being used for things in this era." - Avery Jackson
He was involved with fundraisers to fix the windows, fix the bell tower, and different things like that.
Fast-forward a decade and Jackson is a fourth-year student at Saint Mary’s University, the church is now a registered municipal heritage property, it has a new tin roof, and the local historical society that Jackson belongs to now owns the building.
“It all kind of ties together,” he said. “I’m studying archaeology at SMU. That’s one thing I liked about archaeology, I could do projects on the areas of interest in my community – kind of give back to the community. That’s always what it’s been about. Giving back for people to enjoy, you know, hearing the church bell, see this building when they’re driving by. I think that’s one thing that our group embodies is preserving these buildings so people can drive by and see them, have them open to the public like they were initially.”
But he’s not talking about turning the church into a museum staffed by summer students. He wants the buildings to come to life, support themselves, and become essential again. He’s not alone.
“I can also speak to that because I was part of that drive, and really we’re trying to develop a community,” said Maureen MacInnis, another member of the group. “Nova Scotia was a world of small communities that helped each other and lived together and did things together.”
She believes that if the buildings are revived, and the people come back, a way of life lived even 20 years ago can be reinstated. But her dream is bigger than that.
“Bring it back to the stage of what it would have been like in the early 1900s, where as a community you knew each other, and you gathered together. You helped each other out. And you lived in community,” she said. “If we open up the community hall then we can be doing things down there. The teenagers can have a place to go – that’s not the graveyard up behind someone’s house – that they can feel a part of. In doing that, loving the buildings, and putting them back to their former glory, then it’s going to draw people from farther away to come as well.”
“People love to see these buildings when they’re driving down the road, but a lot of people don’t realize all the hard work that’s entailed in maintaining them,” Jackson said.
“So... if someone comes and does something and has a fantastic time, when they’re thinking about having some kind of family gathering or whatever, they’ll think ‘let’s just rent the Clarence hall.’”
Steve Skafte, a local poet, photographer and writer with an interest in heritage, dropped by the church. He believes there is a lot more to old churches than religion. He lives at the Beaconsfield end of Clarence Road and has been aware of the church all his life.
“I think if people realize there is a lot of cultural interest, a lot of social interest – churches were used as places for sometimes political meetings and so on, or all sorts of weddings, social events,” he said. “There’s a lot more that happened here than sort of the Sunday morning service.”
He believes that if you look at the church in just a religious context, it would be impossible to bring back to life. In fact, he said many old churches have been empty or non-religious longer than they were working churches.
MacInnis said the building is already being used again.
“We had a community supper here this fall and we had over 100 people attend,” she said. That was to raise funds for the community hall. “The Life School House, I had a function that was too big for my home and so there was 54 here to learn about solar energy. So we’ve already started the process of incorporating it into being part of the community. We don’t know if it will ever be utilized as a church again. That could definitely come about. If we don’t start doing something now in order to save it, we all know what happens to buildings when they’re left.”
“Canada is such a young country, but Nova Scotia is our old part,” MacInnis said. “For me, it’s very important that we keep where we came from. And this, to me, is a symbol of where we came from.”
Jackson agreed. He said the church stands in memory of people like Thomas Wood, original grantee for the Clarence land, who was the first person in Canadian history to make a translation of the Book of Prayer and different religious scriptures for the Mi’kmaq – the Indigenous population of the area. Or Isaac Foster, the man who donated the land for the church. And C. B. Clark, the man who built it in 1853.
Jackson said when he first got involved, the congregation was talking about selling everything. As a young teen, that had him worried.
“I don’t want this building to just be like a museum or something stuck in that era,” Jackson said. “I want it to continue to make history, in a sense, by being used for things in this era - be mindful of the past while also kind of being aware of where our group can go, what we can do for our community.”
MacInnis said she hopes people will become interested in what they’re doing. Their first meeting is going to be Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. Jackson said anyone interested in becoming involved should attend. The community hall, built in 1891, is also being registered as a municipal heritage property and Jackson hopes to find out before Christmas if it gets approved.
MacInnis’ daughter, Mairéad, plays the piano. The acoustics are good, and she plays a classical piece that fills the church. She’s part of the future here at the church. The original finish in the building – plaster or wood or both -- is now covered in some sort of tile. Jackson said that on the ceiling those tiles apparently cover a large painting that was damaged when water leaked through the roof. Someday he hopes to find out for sure.
Find out more about the Clarence United Baptist Church and Clarence Community Hall at https://www.facebook.com/ClarenceNovascotiacanada/