New lives for old buildings: The rural church and rural schoolhouse

By Ian McKechnie

New lives for old buildings: The rural church and rural schoolhouse

A quarter of a century ago, in 1994, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, South Eldon celebrated its 150th anniversary as a congregation, only to close shortly thereafter. This massive Gothic-revival place of worship – vast in scale compared with other rural churches in the area – is now privately owned.

The sounds of congregational singing have long since died off, the smells and tastes of those delightful dinners so common to the rural church experience are no more, and the furnishings found homes elsewhere, having been sold off at auction. Located at the northwest corner of Prospect and Lorneville Roads, [the former] St. Andrew’s Church still rises from the surrounding landscape, its soaring facade partially hidden by the surrounding foliage.

The rural church and the rural schoolhouse. They went hand-in-hand for generations of Ontarians, who looked to them as cultural hubs — as places where fellowship was enjoyed, principles were passed down, and a spirit of community was fostered. It was in these places of salvation and education that children learned how to read, write, speak, and sing. From school concerts to church picnics, the little red schoolhouse and “the little brown church in the vale” were the places to be at a time when communication technology was very limited, and engaging with one’s neighbour could not be accomplished merely by sending off a text message, or even dialing a phone number.

Drastic changes in both public education and in church attendance have rendered a great many of these historic spaces obsolete.

The Hall-Dennis Report of 1968 recommended that the old schools be replaced with “more imaginative, flexible, beautiful learning centres [that] should rise as testimonials to the greatness of man.” A dozen one-room schoolhouses could be replaced with a large consolidated school – Jack Callaghan Public School (opened 1966) and Mariposa Elementary School (opened 1972) being examples of this phenomenon. A series of cultural shifts coupled with a decline in rural populations precipitated the decline of small rural churches. For many, they have become quaint subjects for day-tripping photographers, having shed their original function years before. Some continue to carry on the role for which they were built, with Knox Presbyterian Church in Glenarm and St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church in Downeyville being two notable examples.

So what are we doing with the defunct one-room schoolhouses and little country churches that dot the landscape of Kawartha Lakes? For answers, I turned to Sarah Horton, Susan Obertreis, and Denny and Dee Maher. They have taken these unique properties and re-purposed them as businesses and private homes, whilst retaining much of their historic character.

Sarah runs the Manilla Church Bed & Breakfast, located in a one-time Bible Christian-turned-Methodist-turned-United Church built about 150 years ago and renovated by a previous owner. “We purchased the space to be our family home with the dream of one day running retreats and B&B but it wasn’t until mat leave with our first child that we took on the task of establishing the space as a business,” she says. “The renovation had been done, we hit the auction houses and antique stores to dress the space in a blend of modern and elegant decor with traditional elements. The challenge was in blending functional areas with the unique architecture and keeping decorating simple so as not to detract from the clean lines and beauty of the space.”

Susan oversees the North Valentia Schoolhouse. Built in 1897, it is now a vacation rental complete with a stunning frame addition. “We wanted to maintain the character and charm of the schoolhouse by working with the original building rather than alter it,” Susan remarks. “Some people choose to lower ceilings and partition rooms off but it was important to us to showcase the original detail of the building.” Thanks to the vision and foresight of people like Sarah and Susan, travellers can experience the hospitality and atmosphere of buildings that were once stopping-off points on countless journeys of faith and education.

The current custodians of these erstwhile churches and schools are keenly aware of their responsibility to conserve these artefacts, so replete with stories of human experience.

“We enjoy when previous students stop by and tell us how things used to be as well as what their memories of the place are,” Susan comments. The Mahers relate a similar story. “One of many visitors to our home told us she saw her first horseless carriage here,” Denny writes. “Knowing some of our neighbours went to school here, seeing their initials carved into the bricks and hearing stories about their school days in our home makes us very glad we are preserving this school house which was built in 1892.”

Sarah Horton agrees. “We felt that with purchase of the Manilla church as our home came the responsibility of stewardship and of sharing what was a pivotal community space with the others,” she states. “It still gives me goosebumps to stop, look around and admire the workmanship of the space, and on a sunny day with the light streaming through the stain glass windows it makes you feel truly blessed.”

Both the Manilla Church and the North Valentia Schoolhouse are featured on Doors Open Kawartha Lakes, taking place Sunday September 8.

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