On a Monday afternoon in late February, Anthea Taljaard puts some of the final touches on her new business, an art gallery and café in a building in the middle of a swooping turn on East Cheezetcook Road not far from Highway 7 on the Eastern Shore.
The café won’t open for a few more weeks, but the gallery on the main floor is ready to go. Among its displays are the works, such as paintings, pillows, crafts, textiles, and folk art, by dozens of local artists from Preston to Sheet Harbour.
This isn’t your typical gallery and café space, though. The building that houses Taljaard’s new venture once served as the spiritual focus of the community, St. Barnabas Anglican Church.
“I never thought of buying a church before, but I thought it’s the perfect canvas for what we want to do,” Taljaard said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner a day before opening in early March.
Taljaard moved to Nova Scotia with her wife in the winter of 2020. She’s from South Africa, but spent four years in the Middle East working with women entering the workforce. She met her Canadian wife there. Eventually, they moved to Toronto, but Taljaard wanted to live by the ocean. After discussions about what coast they’d prefer, they settled on moving to Nova Scotia. And after much searching they eventually found a house in West Jeddore.
That was just before the province locked down because of the state of emergency for COVID-19.
Taljaad was hunting for work, but wasn’t having any luck, so she decided to start her own business. At the end of June, she said she ran around like a “blue-arse fly” looking for artists and found 12 and opened a shop in a tiny strip mall in Jeddore. Eventually, she moved into another space near the Sobeys in Head of Jeddore. In the middle of the pandemic, the gallery found success.
Taljaard wanted to expand, including by adding an outdoor market, but the landlord wouldn’t permit that plan. And then St. Barnabas Anglican Church went up for sale. The price? $175,000.
“I leapt in, boots and all, put an offer in, and was turned down,” Taljaard said. Six offers were submitted within 72 hours. But the winning offer backed out after he learned the cemetery on the property would still be active.
The listing went back online just as Taljaard was searching again. She called her agent and put in another offer, one of three in total. Taljaard’s offer got the church.
The church itself closed in the early part of COVID lockdowns. The parishioners left after one service and never went back. Everything that was in the church from that last service, including the books of hymns on the pews, were left as is.
“It was little bit like a walkout, like the rapture,” Taljaard said. “One minute they were there and the next minute they weren’t there.”
Taljaard and her small team have spent months working on the church to turn it into a gallery and restaurant. The building needed some work, including roofing repairs and wiring. More work is to come, including replacing the oil tank.
But Taljaard left much of the character of the church and the sanctuary intact. While she removed the pews and the red carpet in the sanctuary, some of the pews remain as shelving for artwork displays. Some of the original floor made from Douglas fir milled at the once functioning mill down the road remain intact. Taljaard and her team re-stained and resealed the remaining wood. The light fixtures are original, but now they have LED bulbs. A few cabinets were removed from the vestry, which now serves as Taljaard’s office. A space along the side of the sanctuary will serve as an artists’ studio and classroom. The former altar, meanwhile, is filled with displays of local artwork. The colourful stained glass window was untouched.
The church basement is where the restaurant is and seats about 25 guests and has a commercial kitchen. Here guests will feast on dishes of South African cuisine, like peri peri chicken, sweet and savoury pancakes, and Boerewors, which Taljaard herself will make, at least until she can teach the recipes to someone else.
This space is simple, but decorated with works of art from Ghana and Kenya, most of which are from Taljaard’s own collection. In a corner there’s a pantry where preserves and pickles from Canada and South Africa are stored.
The altar from the church now serves as an area for the host where guests check-in. That altar was so heavy, to move it downstairs it had to be cut into pieces and carried down on the stair lift in the stairwell.
Renovating a church into a new space is not for the faint of heart. And it’s certainly not cheap.
“You’re not walking in and it’s live-in ready, by any means,” Taljaard said. “And it’s got a lot of quirks. The building is an old lady and she likes some things and she doesn’t like some things. You have to figure out if that’s something you can live with.”
Over the last few months of renovations, Taljaard has documented the work on the gallery’s Facebook page. She said she’s received almost all positive responses, including likes and comments, to the work that’s been done.
She recalled a couple of former parishioners were sad to see their former place of worship, where they attended weddings, baptisms, and funerals, now gone. But Taljaard said she works to connect with the community. She got to know the Conrod and the Gaetz families, who both have long histories in this community. Some of their ancestors are buried in the cemetery next to the church. Some of those family members took with them some of the items from the church.
Church properties for sale
Many old churches in Nova Scotia have already found a new lease on life. The Church Brewing Co. in Wolfville is a former Presbyterian church. The Avondale Sky Winery is located in the former St. Matthew’s wooden church from Walton on the Noel Shore that was slated for demolition. That church was moved from its location in Walton over road, then by ferry, over more road to its new location in Newport Landing. World-renowned organist Xaver Varnus bought the Pilgrim United Church in Brooklyn outside of Liverpool in 2020. The Kentville Library is located in a refurbished United church.
Just last month another historic church in Nova Scotia hit the market. The Zion United Church in Liverpool is now for sale after its shrinking congregation made the difficult decision they couldn’t afford to keep it running anymore. Ray Baker, chair of the church’s closure working group, told Kevin Bain with LighthouseNOW the church simply couldn’t find new, younger people to maintain the membership. And those expenses, including a $1,000 monthly heating bill, were adding up. “Quickly you’re up to $5,000 or more a month before we can do anything we would like to do in the community,” Baker told Bain.
But it appears there’s already interest in that building: Xaver Varnus, the organist who bought the church in nearby Brooklyn, is interested in buying the Zion church as well.
Buying churches and turning them into something else is definitely not a new trend. As fewer people go to church, the remaining members of the congregations in those churches struggle to pay the bills on what are often old, drafty buildings that are expensive to heat. At the same time, churches have features, like stained glass, high ceilings, solid wood, not easily found in other spaces that can be inspiring for anyone with time and money who loves to renovate. And you can buy them for a pretty good price.
David Hewitt is not a real estate agent, developer, property flipper, or even an owner of an old church. He’s an official with the United Church of Canada for region 15, which covers Nova Scotia. That means he’s in a position where he hears from people looking for churches to buy.
“Some people periodically get this vision in their head of, ‘Oh, how awesome it would be to have a church and turn it into an art gallery, craft store, bed and breakfast, vacation home, whatever,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt said he didn’t always have an answer for those people looking for churches to buy, so he decided to look around for websites or Facebook pages that might feature church properties for sale. When he couldn’t find a site, he created his own, Church Property for Sale – Canada.
Hewitt said he’s not obsessed with the group. Every three months for about one hour, he looks through ads on Kijiji, searching province by province, simply searching for “church” in the real estate section. That will net him listings for properties on Church Streets across Canada, but he can get a good mix of church properties for sale.
“My hope when I was doing that was that maybe [the group] would get known enough that real estate agents could notice it and post church listings themselves,” he said. “That hasn’t happened. I would say I only had two or three posts from real estate agents.”
The churches for sale on Hewitt’s Facebook group range from small historic white churches with a spire to more modern buildings that look nothing like a traditional church. The churches are in rural communities or cities. He’s not denomination specific and he posts ads of any church for sale. The most recent post is surplus items for sale at St. Matthew Wesley United Church in North Sydney has closed, and has relocated to the United Church property in Leitches Creek. Another posting is for a church in Brooklyn on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Still other posts show former churches that were already renovated into homes and are for sale again.
“To us it was an icon”
In Selma on Nova Scotia’s Noel Shore, Anthony Kawalski and his husband, Jonathan Twinley, call a former church their home. The couple aren’t new to the area and spent years running a bed-and-breakfast at the church’s former parsonage across the street.
They’d often go to church at St. George’s and sing in the choir. Kawalski remembers at that point, the number of members in the choir was outnumbered by the congregation, but the congregation numbers dwindled over the years. Even then, the church was a special place for them.
“To us it was an icon, and to be honest with you, it was an icon in terms of presenting our business as a bed-and-breakfast, but it’s a beautiful building,” Kawalski said of the church.
St. George’s was suffering in much of the same ways as other old churches. Its roof was leaking and needed to be replaced. Kawalski and Twinley knew the church minister well, too. Some of the congregants suggested Kawalski, who’s an artist, buy the church and convert it into a gallery for his work.
“The right people in the community respected what Jon and I were doing enough that they would consider it and that’s very important,” Kawalski said. “These things don’t just happen to change hands.”
The couple put in a bid and decided to make the space open access for the community. Back then, they had no intention of living there. Kawalski hosted virtual galleries, art classes, and the local Girl Guides and Scouts used the space for their activities. But Kawalski said it was difficult to get uptake from the community to use the space for events.
Another community group got together and bought another church just a few kilometres away. That space was also used for community events, so there was more competition. Eventually, Kawalski said they just used the church for storage, bought a house in Halifax, visiting the church in Selma once in awhile to fix things here and there, including adding a shining silver metal roof.
The church also held special meaning for the couple. They were married in it on April 23, 2012, about a year to the day after they bought it.
“That was another reason to keep this place alive,” Kawalski said.
Then the COVID pandemic locked down the province. Kawalski said he didn’t want to stay in the city. The two thought about moving to Ontario, but then they decided to move to Selma and live in the church.
“We’d be up here on our own terms this time,” Kawalski said.
While the church is now a gorgeous, modern space, fully upgraded and to code, and decorated with modern furniture and decor, including Kawalski’s own artwork, getting it there had its challenges. The well was across the street on the lot for a home that was torn down. That demolition filled in the well, so Kawalski and Twinley had to have a new well dug on their own property. It took them almost a year to get an occupancy permit for the space as a home. They had to look at fire regulations, too, and made sure the land was zoned for a private residence under the bylaws of East Hants.
“If you’re doing it to comply with changing building regulations, you really need to have deep pockets, an open mind, or a strong heart,” Kawalski. “Because there are hidden things that will bite you … there are all these minefields even after you think you’re this close to having it all put to bed.”
Besides the new roof, they added all new windows, including a large patio window on what was the back wall of the sanctuary and which Kawalski said points due south to Halifax. But they kept the stained glass windows with their trim of red-and-blue squares and centres of yellow, whose colours shine onto the now white floor when the sun beams through the space.
The entire building also had to be insulated, which Kawalski said took up a large part of their budget. Meanwhile, the former church basement now looks like a modern condo.
While Kawalski and Twinley had been connected to the community for years, living and running their inn from the old parsonage, not everyone was pleased they renovated the church into a home. Kawalski recalls having a conversation with a local who said residents would be upset with the all the work going into the former church would mean an increase in their own property taxes.
And some people still recognize the space as a church, and not a private home. Kawalski said people have parked in their driveway, sat and ate lunch on their front step, set up tents or RVs on the property, let their dogs do their business on the lawn. One person even went out to the back of the church to urinate. He said neighbours have kindly reminded those folks the church is now a private home.
“It will be perceived, no matter what signage you put up, no matter what church signage you take away, no matter how much you make it look like a home, people will park here because they think it’s a public space.”
The following is a slideshow of the renovations at St. George’s church. To scroll, click on the arrows or slide numbers below the photos. For those who use a screen reader on a computer, the captions are on the left below the photos, and the arrows and slide numbers are on the right below the photos.
“Horrible experience of selling their spiritual home”
Hewitt knows this struggle well. He sees this church-for-sale business from another angle. As the regional minister for the United Church of Canada, he helps congregations across the province find new ways of carrying on their ministries after a church building has been sold.
“My work is to help congregations to thrive and survive and to not be conflicted with this gut wrenching, horrible experience of selling their spiritual home,” he said. “It’s terribly upsetting and terribly disturbing.”
By the time a congregation finds itself talking about selling a church building, they’re in what Hewitt said is a “depressed state” and they are convinced they have done everything possible to save their church building. Hewitt said the building often becomes the focus of the struggle because there are bills associated with keeping it running. Combine that with smaller congregations and the burden is left to a smaller group of people. When that group finally makes a decision to sell, the wider community is not always supportive.
“You have to keep the community informed,” Hewitt said. “You can’t keep that information to yourself.”
“All they know is they entrusted that care of the church to you. The church is a part of the community, it’s a landmark, it’s a location, it’s a place you come to have your children baptized, and where we have our weddings and funerals take place. We may not participate at all any other time, but if you don’t tell us there’s a problem, we don’t know. We just assume it will always be there.”
He advises that any buyer of an old church be “a friend to the community.”
“The investment in the church is not only in the regular membership,” Hewitt said. “It does exist somewhat in the wider community as well.”
“When people pull that rug from under them, it’s pretty upsetting.”
Also, take a look at the utility bills. While the sale price on a church may seem like a bargain, a buyer will likely have to sink a lot of money into upgrading the building and making major renovations. But with the right eye and enough money, transforming a church into a new space can be rewarding.
“Because of this Facebook page, I’ve discovered homes across the country that have been built from churches and some of them are really impressive,” Hewitt said. “They have a lot going for them.”
Old Church Café
One of the churches currently listed on Hewitt’s Facebook page is the former Advocate Baptist Church in Advocate Harbour, Cumberland County. The church, which was built in the 1880s, stopped being an active church in 2015 and was deconsecrated the same year. That’s when Greg Morris, who’s long worked as a contractor, bought it, and turned its church hall into a restaurant, the Old Church Café. On the menu is a lot of home cooking and seafood dishes. The restaurant’s motto is “food so good, it’s like heaven.”
The church was sitting empty, its congregation long since dwindled away. When someone suggested to Morris the building would make a good café or restaurant, he thought he could fix it up himself.
While Morris owns the building and restaurant, he runs it with John Grant, who said the two have been friends “longer than god.” In an interview with the Examiner, the two finish each other’s sentences.
Getting the church back into shape was a lot of work. The roof was leaking, so a new metal one added. Morris had the electrical upgraded and installed four heat pumps. Everything is up to code, including municipal fire code regulations.
While the church hall was renovated into a restaurant and upgrades were made to the structure of the church, the sanctuary remains intact. The solid wood pews are there, as are stained glass windows, a piano, and a pump organ that dates back to 1901.
“It’s basically restored to the point for anyone who wants to hold a wedding or a funeral there,” Grant said. “A lot of people in the community and from elsewhere do have ties with that congregation over the years.”
The restaurant opened in the summer of 2017, operating about three days a week. Morris and Grant both work the kitchen. Grant, who also had an accounting business, does the books. Other family members help out with serving.
Morris and Grant said most people in the community seemed happy the church had a new purpose. But they add, some people were upset with one specific detail.
“Sometimes you have a feeling some of them were rather upset, not that it was turned into a restaurant, but that we got a liquor licence,” Grant said.
“You know, it’s not a church anymore,” Morris added.
Now Morris is looking to sell the church and café. He put it on the market last year. He and Grant both say they’re “getting up there” and it’s time for someone else to take over. Morris said he’s had several personal issues to deal with over the last few years, including the loss of his wife, Heather, who died just before the restaurant opened.
“I think it would be a good business,” Morris said. “People want places to eat. I never had any complaints about it. I don’t have the same, how do you say?”
“Mojo,” Grant added.
Morris said there’s been some interest, but he wants to make sure the right buyer gets the business. COVID-19 restrictions sometimes prevented out-of-province buyers from coming to see the building in person. Morris said he’d like to see a young couple take the business over, who can put more time into it. He said he’s had some people want to buy it to tear out the interior items and sell them off.
“I don’t like that,” Morris said. “I’d like to preserve the history. It would be a shame if it got torn down.”
Living with the dead
Many of these churches have one feature in common that buyers may not have to deal with at any other property: cemeteries.
Taljaard owns the cemetery and leases it to the parish for 20 years on the provision that they maintain it and the stones and insure it. The parish has the public liability. Taljaard allows an easement so anyone can go through her property to get to the cemetery. The parish also owns an adjacent property where they will build a parking lot so visitors can visit.
Kawalski has a different arrangement. The cemetery alongside his now home belongs to the former church society, which maintains the space. He said people ask him what it’s like having a cemetery basically in their yard. They wonder about ghosts in the church, too.
“I would know if there were ghosts in here. There are no ghosts in this church,” Kawalski said. “You have to fear the living more than the dead … no one has risen up out of any of those gravestones and given Jon and I any judgement, any attitude, any resentment, any jealousy, anything negative. Jon said to me, ‘The dead don’t die at their graves; they die somewhere else, so why would they be hanging around here?’ So, if anyone is worried about the cemetery, don’t worry.”
Living in a legend
Taljaard has now lived on the Eastern Shore for more than two years and has already established herself in a community whose young people have been leaving for cities. While the church is no longer a place of worship, she still wants the gallery and restaurant to be a centre of the community. She took care to save all of those items left behind when the church closed. She created a space in a small room next to the front doors where she will store dishes, photos, and other memorabilia anyone wants to have for free.
“I feel a big responsibility to keep it the way it is. I like being part of the community and the fact I have a 100-year-old history here now is fantastic … All I am doing is changing it from religious to cultural and artistic.”
Meanwhile in Selma, Kawalski said he doesn’t know if they will live in the former church forever. He said if they ever sell it, he hopes they can find someone who will love it as much as they do. The house was nominated for the Municipality of East Hants 2022 Design Awards.
Kawalski said anyone thinking of a buying a church and converting it into another kind of space should just “do it.” But he reminds people they are custodians who have an “opportunity and responsibility to shake it up a bit.”
“I wouldn’t say don’t try. I would say so long as people follow all of that advice, do it because you’ll kick yourself until you occupy one of those locations out there,” Kawalski said pointing to the cemetery he can see out his patio window. “But do it, at least translate the thought into an attempt whether you do it ultimately or not.”
“The living have left their ghosts and their essence in this building. The emotions of those weddings, the christenings, the funeral services. It’s all in here. We, even as we live, we leave an imprint into the walls of a rooms in which we live and breathe. That is here. So, people do buy into that. This building is a building of legend.”