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Building's transformation a labour of love

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in 1940, the vestry of the St. James Anglican Church in Swan River decided that their current building, built in 1902 at 223 Fifth Avenue North, had served its day and was sadly out of repair and a new church would have to be built.
After a promise of $2,000 of funding to be sent in a year’s time from an anonymous donor in England, members of the congregation began raising the remaining needed funds for the construction.
A new building was designed in the cruciform style – a departure from the normal construction style in the Valley as this resembled a cross in shape – by V.S. Poulsen and the church was built at the contracted price of $3,650, with extras bringing the final figure considerably higher.
The second church of St. James in Swan River was opened for services on Christmas Day of 1941, bringing with them from the old church the alter constructed by a former rector, two chancel chairs, lectern, prayer desk, organ, font and a memorial tablet which hung on the wall.
The new church featured wood panelled, arching ceilings with a cluster of three large windows on each side to let light in. There were also new pews provided by the same generous English donor, and three stained glass windows which were provided by the Heyes family in memory of their mother.
The decades following saw many worship services, weddings and funerals take place with a number of rectors passing through its doors, with the church serving its congregation well.
But, after 40 years, this now not-so-new building started showing its age.
“It was mainly Frank Nerbas and me who kept pushing the situation to get a new church,” said long time congregation member Bruce Ash. “We had outgrown the old one and we had a wet basement there. Frank and I won.”
As it worked out, a bequest of $15,000 was left to the church from the estate of Laura Wilson in 1987 and those funds where the base for the New Church Building Fund.
“We had a money drive where we went to our church members, asking them to donate whatever amount they were able every month for two years,” said Ash.
“We ended up with enough money to build a church.”
On Oct. 11, 1992, 121 members of the St. James Anglican Church gathered at the Fifth Street North location for one last service with the Deed of Deconsecration being read by the Bishop at the end before a pilgrimage lead much of the group to the new location on First Street South.
Again, many of the important pieces from the facility, including the steeple’s bell, were moved over to the new building.
The old church was sold in 1994 and would be converted in a tea room, Tea for Two, and later, K&M’s Coffee Connections and Candles, among others.
But, it was during the stint as Candles that future owners Shawn Charlebois and Trudy Smith would fall in love with the building, many years later purchasing it to make it their home.
“In approximately 2008, we were living in New Brunswick and looking to move back here when we joked with our real estate agent that we wanted something with a lot of character, like the old Anglican Church,” said Charlebois. “It was our surprise when she informed us that it was actually for sale.”
“Candles had been our favourite spot to come for lunch when we lived in Swan River before,” added Smith. “We knew of the building, had been inside and Shawn had always had this vision of making it into a home.”
The outside of the building was in need of repair, along with a leaky basement and drafty windows.
“It was all the original siding, all the inside was original wood panels – walls and ceiling – and the floors were much darker than they are now,” said Charlebois, noting that the only thing they did before they moved in was have the wood floors refinished.
“We lived in it right through the renovations,” said Smith, adding that the slept upstairs in the common space for a number of years before the basement living space was ready.
“We started with the windows and because we did the windows, we had to do the walls – replacing rot and converting them from 2x4 to 2x6. Then, because we did the walls we had to do the ceiling and then the siding. It just went on and on from there.”
The couple wanted to keep the feel of the building as original as possible, opting for large windows in a shape similar to the original and keeping the steeple on the roof intact.
“We were urged to remove it by many of the contractors through the process but that’s one of the things that makes it unique,” said Charlebois.
“We really wanted to keep both the church and the open feeling with everything we did, right down to the placement of our kitchen island, which is similar to how the alter sat.”
Original pieces in the home are a built-in bench near the entrance, railings to the basement, lighting fixtures and dividing railings to the platformed area in what was the front of the original church, which they still have in storage but have been removed recently to give the home a different look.
The couple has also found many pieces of furniture that pay homage to the building’s roots.
“It was difficult to find things like the right island light, and I finally found one at an auction in Winnipegosis from a church there that we had re-wired,” said Charlebois, adding that it’s the details that make their home so much more.
They also converted the damp basement into a dry, functioning space with three bedrooms, a bathroom and storage space to fit their family.
“Everything was dug from around the space and two feet of clay was trucked away and we brought new top soil in,” said Charlebois.
Outdoors, they kept a cement pad that was in front of the building, which was a thorn to Charlebois for many years until he found the perfect use for the space in the form of a Zen garden.
“Now it’s a blessing and I’m so thankful we kept it.”
After eight years of major renovation, the family is happy to have overcome the many challenges of renovating such a facility and are appreciative of their space.
“It’s really a new house on an old skeleton – walls expanded and new insulation, plumbing, wiring, windows and creative materials,” said Charlebois.
“I’ll never forget needing to find 12 foot bendable drywall that can be formed while damp and getting to watch two contractors try to manipulate that on scaffolding to the ceiling.”
Despite all the challenges, buying a cookie cutter house never interested the couple and they are so happy with their decision to renovate the former church.
“Shawn is always interested in things that are different, unique or vintage and has always a vision for what things could become,” said Smith.
“I like history and appreciate it but there’s a little romance there as well,” added Charlebois.
“It’s our home now and we don’t notice things like the arched ceilings anymore. It’s a very calm and peaceful space and it really allows us to be together as a family while having our own space. We really take it for granted.”
Purchasing the facility for $45,000, the property was recently assessed for $235,000.
“It takes a special person to live in a church and a few years ago, we had to put it on the market because we needed outdoor space – not because we didn’t love it,” said Charlebois. “But, we’ve resolved that problem by purchasing a lot on the river right across the street.”
Smith, Charlebois and their family are looking forward to many more happy years in their unique home.
“We love it when people come to us with memories of being married here or attending as members,” said Smith. “We love that our home has such a rich history.
“We really have a responsibility as a community to invest back in things like green space and heritage buildings,” added Charlebois. “New isn’t always better and we need to keep our history.”