Heritage implications cloud the sale of St. Jude’s Church

With the Diocese’s decision late in 2015 to reorganize St. Jude’s Church with Grace Church in Brantford and for that congregation to begin worshipping at Grace, there was the desire to sell the excess church property of St. Jude’s in order to provide resources to continue to help to grow and support ministry at Grace Church.

As the sale of beautiful, old architectural buildings can be a sad and painful process for all involved, such sales also can create challenges in the local communities. Such is the case in Brantford, where the local historical society has recommended to City Council that an Ontario Heritage designation be placed on the former St. Jude’s Church. The City can approve such a designation without the owner’s consent, as is stated in Ontario heritage law, but some municipalities do not like to do that for various obvious reasons; disenfranchising the community and owners.

The challenge that such historical designations placed on our churches pose is that it can severely hamper the diocese’s ability to dispose of property, once churches have closed. A sale to a third party, knowing that there is a heritage designation placed on it, will not be forthcoming if the buyer is desiring to renovate the property significantly. Heritage restrictions may not allow for significant alterations to the building for a new buyer. Demolition goals of a buyer for property redevelopment will also not be possible for a sale by the diocese. As a municipality has to grant permission to demolish, such approvals will not be granted if there is a heritage designation on the building present or designation forthcoming.

With the listing for sale of St. Jude’s Church in Brantford, the local heritage preservation body was seeking heritage designation to protect and preserve the painted murals. Little communication to the diocese of this request was received prior to the City meeting to discuss the matter.  As a result, the diocese was required to state their opposition to heritage designation proposed at a City of Brantford Planning Committee meeting in early March. At this meeting, the Committee voted to come up with options that would preserve these murals, even after the diocese was given an opportunity to respond at the meeting to preserving religious murals in a church that was no longer providing active worship. There was to be an opportunity for the diocese to work with local leaders to seek further recommendations.

St. Jude’s, built in 1871, is adorned with beautiful painted murals throughout the nave of the church. The work was completed in 1936 by renowned church decorative artist Peter Charles Browne. These murals received national heritage status in 1994 when it is believed the artist’s grandson initiated the designation.

This national designation, though significant for the church and the community, has not provided any financial assistance to the church for the future preservation of the murals. Over time, the artwork has cracked and deteriorated as the church has aged and dwindling financial resources has made it impossible for St. Jude’s to care for the aging building, let alone the murals. These facts, along with the diocese’s position stated at City Council that the diocese does not have the resources to care for a closed church, provides merit to the opposition for preserving, with heritage status, such a property. The unknown is where will resources to repair and preserve these murals come from.

During this discussion with the City, an interested party in the property continued to show interest in its purchase, knowing and acknowledging the potential for heritage designation. An offer for its sale has now been accepted, conditional upon financing. This may make the path towards a potential heritage designation by the City more challenging, given the new owner is a private citizen in the community.

Paul Rathbone is the secretary-treasurer for the Diocese of Huron
Photo by M. J. Idzerda