The Church of Ian by Tom Van Dusen
Anybody shopping for Russel’s Ian Cunningham this Christmas has their work cut out topping what he gifted himself this year.
Ian bought himself a church, not a table top porcelain church to place in a Christmas village. No Ian bought a full size stand alone church out in the country near North Augusta, for anybody not sure where that is, it’s northeast of Brockville.
More specifically, the two tone brick building which opened on New Year’s Day, 1865, sits along deliciously named Jellyby Road close to what was once a stop on the Ottawa-Brockville Railway line.
According to an account in The Canadian Churchman, it was a rousing opening with 300 worshipers showing up to a service that could comfortably accommodate 200. To make sure the music rose to the occasion, a harmonium was delivered by horse and sleigh from 18 miles away.
“Let us hope”, The Churchman opined “that this church nay be the means of propagating and keeping the truth of God’s Pure Word in this place to the latest generation.” It was a much and then some for close to a century and a half…and then Ian got hold of it.
Why? That is the question. Ian himself has trouble explaining what motivated him to buy a church.
He’s not particularly religious, Ian explains during an “evening of song and celebration of the season” held at the former St. James of Jerusalem Anglican Church last Friday.
There’s no electricity so lighting came from oil lamps and battery powered candles. Heating is provided by a wood stove acquired with the purchase. Ian has no plans to hook into the provincial grid, preferring to maintain the atmosphere of the 1860’s.
Neither is he planning to transform the church into a house or business. Other than some flooring here and some paint there, and perhaps the addition of a pressed tin ceiling, he intends to leave it exactly as is, complete with original oak pews.
The altar and two deacons’ benches were removes before he took possession. However, an eye- catching stained glass window showing Christ on the cross still adorns the rear wall of the church.
The window was a gift from friends in England to Rev. John Stannage who was in charge of the North Augusta mission back when the church was constructed on a site donated by John Jelly.
As of yet, Ian hasn’t climbed up into the spire and isn’t sure if there’s a bell up there. He has ascertained, however, that there are bats in the belfry.
About a dozen Friday evening guests were handed the words to several Christmas carols and accompanied by two guitars and a flute, joined in the celebration. Non-alcoholic beverages and biscuits were available to fuel the singers; no bats made an appearance.
Adding to the atmosphere, the area experienced the first snow squall of the season. The weather outside wasn’t exactly frightful; still, inside the fire was so delightful and the lights were turned down low. We may have even sung something like that!
So why, Ian, why? He has no plans to start his own denomination like fellow Russeller Vinta Baker and preach every Sunday to an appreciative congregation. His wife Sue is thinking, however of becoming an “officiate” permitting her to conduct weddings in the picture perfect church.
“I’ve always wanted to have a church” Ian offers with a shrug, “It’s more of an architectural and historic thing.”
He allows to getting a kick out of telling people he has to go to his church and, “when they ask what brand he belongs to, he answers” “I mean my church…my own church.”
He didn’t buy it on a whim. He negotiated for months until the price finally got to were he wanted it…$50,000. Considering the limited use he planned to put it to, the building wasn’t worth any more to him.
The former St. James of Jerusalem is among scores of rural churches – and some city ones too – that have been let go by dwindling congregations who can no longer afford the upkeep. Many have been transformed into unusual residences.
Ian’s church will be used for gatherings and possibly musical performances. Jellyby neighbours have shown a curiosity about his plans and are probably relieved “I didn’t fill the yard with old cars.”
Hopefully, it’ll fill annually with newer cars delivering guests to the Cunningham’s evening of Christmas song and celebration by candle and wood fire, keeping up a centuries old rural tradition and a fine method of non denominational worship.
(this article written by Tom Van Dusen appeared in the December 23rd, 2015 edition of “The Chesterville Record”.)
Working on the exterior
Installing the new tin ceiling
Carolling at the Kirk (Dec 20, 2017)
by Tom Van Dusen
The big box wood stove was doing what it could to throw enough heat but you could still feel the chill permeating the old country edifice last Sunday afternoon. Heat rises and it had quite a way to go.
Set along Jellyby Road in Augusta Township (it is actually in Elizabethtown-Kitley Township), it may look like a church but it was decommissioned several years ago, making it just another multi-purpose building, but with the distinction of possessing a steeple.
And of not being an abandoned derelict, something seen as a welcome contribution by the neighbours who while they’re not exactly why the Cunningham of Russell acquired the building, are pleased they did so.
The rare sight – especially during the winter – of several cars parked out front made it clear Sunday there was a purpose that day for the former St. James of Jerusalem Church. Inside, much of the pew space was occupied by friends of Ian and Sue Cunningham, proud owners of the two toned brick building for the past three years.
It may have been chilly away from the stove but led by three musicians including Ian occupying the former alter, guests were warming things up with renditions of favourite Christmas carols. It was the Cunningham’s third annual “Carolling at the Kirk of St. James seasonal gathering.
“I need to do some mortaring up on the steeple.” Ian said as he ran through a short list of improvements still to be made to his labour of love. I wondered aloud how he was going to get the job done without breaking his neck.
“You can rent a cherry picker and that’s how I plan to get at it.” he replied, revealing something I didn’t know. In my mind. I ran through jobs I could get done over a few days with the help of a cherry picker.
Since the last time I was in the former church which opened with great fanfare on New Year’s Day, 1865, Ian has added a sturdy loft from which he can look down from high upon his congregation…I mean his friends. He’s also refitted the ceiling with glorious, old style silver pressed tin which joins with stained glass windows to give a jaunty look to what is traditionally a more severe look. Hanging from the ceiling is a distinctly un-churchy collection of mismatched chandeliers acquired on Kijiji.
It always surprises me what an almost physical glow carols can create, warmth which starts deep inside and radiates outwards. Yes, a shot or two of brandy can have the same effect but the Cunningham’s gathering is deliberately non-alcoholic.
That’s in part because they don’t want visitors negotiating snowy rural roads with a snoot-full…as they used to say back in the 1860’s when St. James opened close to a former stop on the long defunct Ottawa Brockville rail line.
I forgot the non-alcoholic part and brought a bottle of wine which I quickly turned into a hostess gift. The carolling libation of choice was hot cider or hot chocolate, handy in washing down a spread of Christmas cookies which carollers snacked on between sets.
Not all guests came from afar. The Oosterhofs, Henry, brother Alex and wives Evelina and Julie, who operate a dairy farm along Jellyby nearby, were on hand, happy to be invited with nothing but positive comments about re-purposing the local landmark.
Henry recalled the many years the building sat empty before it was put up for sale. He really likes what Ian and Sue have done with the place and hopes to someday acquire a surplus oak pew for his porch. Evelina loves the reproduction pressed tin and is thinking of adding some to the Oosterhof kitchen.
Henry sees as a blessing the fact newcomers arrived on the road to save the old church and turn it into something useful. Ian has made it clear the building is available for community functions and other public gatherings.
So why did this retiring and retired public servant feel the need to acquire his very own church? He isn’t religious in an institutional way, he wasn’t looking for a man cave and the building is too elegant for that use anyway. He has no plans to live in it, to open a shop or to host any more than an occasional musical gathering i the space.
He just wanted to own a church, more of an architectural and historic whim than a God fearing one. Still, come Christmastime, you get a feeling that God is smiling down on what has transpired at His house on Jellyby Road.
(this article written by Tom Van Dusen appeared in the December 20th, 2017 edition of “The Chesterville Record”.)
The refinished interior
Christmas Carolling at the Church
The Clock on the church steeple has been painted onto the church with the hands fixed. Here are Ian’s thought on what the hands represent:
“My own interpretation is that it is a biblical verse. I have been “face-to-face with the clock, and can tell you that it reads 10:28, and not 10:29 like others have written in the past. John (James) 10:28 “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand”.
Time of service would not be 10:28 … that makes no sense at all.
Another option could be that they just pulled a time “out of a hat” – maybe it was the time when someone decided the church was “finished” … I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure, and being a “mystery” only adds to the story don’t you think?”
Our thanks to Ian Cunningham for supplying the photos and information that goes along with this post.