Effort to save Stone Church more to do with history and community than with religion

Originally Published in the Cape Breton Star on October 22, 2015

Stone Church, Victoria Mines - photo by Rob RomardMariners have been using the Stone Church to navigate the mouth of Sydney Harbour since 1916. Perched high on a Victoria Mines hillside, the church is one of the first landmarks to greet cruise ship visitors as they arrive. It was also one of the last images of home seen by soldiers sailing for Europe in the two world wars.

In fact, one of St. Alphonsus’ spires was paid for by the Atlantic Pilotage Authority of Sydney. The other spire, as the story goes, is dedicated to a lady who agreed to match all of the community’s donations for the construction of the church, so long as it was not made of wood — since the wooden church before it had burned to the ground.

Melanie Sampson, spokesperson for the Stone Church Restoration Society, explains that though it wasn’t made of wood, it wasn’t made of stone either.

“It’s actually constructed of concrete. Architects are amazed that it was done in one complete, continuous pour. A remarkable thing back in 1916.”

Formed in 2014 with the original goal of halting the demolition of the church, the society’s offer to purchase the church for $40,000 was recently accepted by the current owner, the Diocese of Antigonish. Once the terms of the sale are met, the church and the land it sits on will be handed over to the society. The adjacent cemeteries will remain in the care of the diocese.

So why would a community group want to save a 99-year-old building which, according to the National Trust of Canada, needs $300,000 in repairs.

“You can’t put a price tag on history, said Sampson. “We want to make sure it’s there for generations to come.

“It’s in relatively good shape. The majority of the work that needs to be done is on the two spires. We’re confident we will be able to get grants after talking to different levels of government, and different heritage grants as well. But the key thing for us is to have ownership. We need that deed. We won’t quality for any grants without it.”

Sampson said the Stone Church is listed by the National Trust as one of the top 10 endangered buildings in Canada.

“As soon as we get ownership of the building, we plan on making it into a designated national heritage property, so that we can apply to receive funding.

“We want to tie it into tourism. It’s one of the first things cruise ship passengers see when they’re coming into the port of Sydney, and one of the last things they see when they’re going back out … we really want to keep it open for the tourist season, from the spring to the late fall.”

To purchase the church, and to get the proper designation so they can apply for grants and funding, Sampson said the society is required to have a business plan.

“We are in the process of revamping the business plan, now that we know the price tag. We never knew before what the diocese was going to charge us.”

The society has provided the diocese with a $7,500 non-refundable deposit, which is being held in trust by their lawyer until the final agreement is drawn up and signed. The society will then have until July, 2016, to pay the balance.

Samspon said the society has raised roughly $13,000 so far.

“That includes the money for the down payment. Each weekend we’re raising more. We’re really hoping for a good turnout to our dances and other events so that we can get it paid off as quickly as possible.

“We’re on track, but we can use more volunteers. More hands make less work. No task is too small. Even if people can only donate an hour or two per month, that’s fine. The more people we can get, the better. We really want to make this a community effort, not just a small group effort. We’re open to anyone’s suggestions and ideas. We could use people’s areas of expertise, especially business people. And even people who wouldn’t mind sitting in the flea market or the mall to sell tickets or our merchandise. No one is too old or too young.”

Sampson would like to see more youth getting involved.

“This is something we are trying to save for future generations. Young people could help us put on concerts, especially college students— where they might need volunteer hours. We would be willing to sign off to help them.

St. Alphonsus was always a Roman Catholic church, but as Sampson pointed out, this effort has more to do with history and community than with religion. “We’re getting help from people that aren’t even catholic. They feel that the building just needs to be saved — it’s a piece of their heritage.”

Presently, churches enjoy certain tax exemptions. Once the sale of St. Alphonsus goes through, however, the church will lose its tax exempt status. The Stone Church Restoration Society will have to factor property taxes into their business plan, “Unless,” Sampson adds with a laugh, “maybe the municipality will be kind enough to waive that.”

Overall, Sampson said the operating costs are modest.

“The cost for the last three years of operation, 2004 to 2006, was only 6,000 per year. There’s no running water in the church, so you don’t have to heat it when it’s not in use. We anticipate our costs will be about $10,000 per year, including property taxes. We will only open it in the winter for special events and weddings so we won’t have to be heating it on a regular basis.

“One of the ways to provide some regular revenue for the church will be to use it as nondenominational wedding chapel — one-stop-shopping for your wedding. We also plan to host a lot of community events, concerts and such since there is no other community hall in this area.”

The society will be working hard over the next few months to raise funds before their July deadline. One idea that Samson is very excited about is Stone Aid.

“We’re looking for musicians who will volunteer their time and talent for a Stone Aid concert early in the new year. Anyone who interested in performing should give me a call.”

Musicians interested in performing at the Stone Aid benefit can reach Melanie Sampson at (902) 539-8347.