Caistor Baptist Church to be torn down
By Joanne McDonald
It’s been some time since an Alleluia rang out from the sanctuary of the Caistor Baptist Church.
A once integral part of the community since it was built in 1864, the church was officially closed and transferred to the Township of West Lincoln in 2014, is structurally unsafe, and slated to be torn down this year.
It’s one of about 9,000 churches in Canada that will be lost in the next decade, roughly a third of all faith-owned buildings to be shuttered, sold off or demolished.
But thanks to Debbie De Vries, residents of West Lincoln, a Township bustling with new growth and development, can be reminded of the life force that once flowed through the iconic little country church.
“I don’t want it to die a sad quiet death, but if it has to be so, then let it be with dignity,” said De Vries, shocked and heartbroken over vandalism that desecrated the building interior this summer.
Researching the church history, she wants to see the mess cleaned up out of respect and some of the religious items put into hands where they will be valued and preserved.
De Vries had the biggest shock in late May when she saw for the first time, the interior of the church.
A young couple, strangers, had stopped and walked in through the unlocked front doors. De Vries and her husband Gary followed them in to ask what they were doing.
“The first thing that struck me was that it looked a scene from an apocalyptic zombie movie,” said De Vries. It was as though the congregation had just got up from a service and left – Bibles and hymnals stacked along the backs of the pews, choir robes hanging on pegs, religious pictures and a large tapestry on the walls, and the collection plates still resting on the dais. “When we walked into the kitchen there was still sugar in the sugar bowls.”
“I was choking back tears with the state it was in. There were seven to eight feet of standing water in the basement, it was flooded to the top of the stairs.”
“This is 160 years of community history. How could it have been left in this state for six years?”
De Vries sent an email to police to alert them the church was unsecured. She sent a second email in July but had no response. She spoke to Township staff who came out to lock the church and have since removed the pews, the cistern and septic systems. But somewhere in between, the church was again left unlocked.
Then came an even bigger heartbreak when the church was vandalized, debris strewn throughout and graffiti “your god is dead” was spray painted across the interior wall.
“It deserves so much more,” says De Vries. “The vandalism and the graffiti only added insult to injury.”
She offered to clean up the mess, sweep the floor, and put books back on the shelves to restore some dignity to the building but was told she could be charged with trespassing.
“I just wanted to clean it up,” said De Vries. “There must be a certain reverence and respect when you think of all the history, all the lives that started and ended there.”
LINKS WITH THE PAST
A few newspaper clippings, Sunday church bulletins and a nice piece recorded in the book, Our Links With the Past 1784-1984, published by The West Lincoln Historical Society in 1985 provide a glimpse into the past.
Many of the first Baptists in the area were United Empire Loyalists seeking refuge from the American Revolution. From the book: “March 16, 1864 the Caistor Baptist Church was formed, and under the supervision of Geo. Bayley was built on L 15 C 5. The land was donated by Thos. and Martha (Bush) Jackson who had come from Scotland in 1833. Lumber was supplied by J. Sheppard and the first $100 of a building fund came from a legacy left by Jobbie Bush. The first minister was Theophorous Booker with B. Pyott and J. Sheppard as deacons. A report in 1885 showed a congregation of 100. Rev. S.G. Harris served for 21 years at a salary that averaged $150 per year.
The West Lincoln Historical Society is gathering information regarding all of the churches in the area that are no longer serving the community.
“It is the history of our Township and if not recorded it is going to die and be missed,” said Joan Martin, coordinator of archives. “If anyone has information we would appreciate it.”
The Smithville Train Station is home to the archives, a treasure trove of the Township’s past that is quite literally bulging out of the basement doors. It’s a lot of work for the Historical Society and Martin welcomes any help.
“That’s our job here, preserving the history of the Township,” Martin said.
CHANGE OF OWNERSHIP
The Township took over the Caistor Baptist Church approximately six years ago from the local congregation. “Similar to most private cemeteries, the previous owners approached the Township to take over the cemetery, however, in this circumstance the church was included in the transfer by the local congregation,” said West Lincoln planner Gerrit Boerema. The property will continue to be used for a cemetery maintained by the Township.
“The church was in poor condition at the time of transfer and it would have taken a considerable amount of money to get it back up to a useable condition,” Boerema said.
The Township is preparing to demolish the church this year as it has become unsafe. “As it is unsafe we cannot allow members of the public within the building,” Boerema said.
Boerema said the pews have been removed from the church and are being sold to raise funds for the West Lincoln Heritage Committee to install a plaque on the property commemorating the church. Also, some of the Bibles and hymn books are currently with the West Lincoln Historical Society.
“There has been direct and regular contact with both of these groups as the Township has navigated this process. There are still seven pews left for purchase for those that may be interested,” Boerema said.
“Regarding the concern about vandalism, it is our understanding that someone may have gained unauthorized access to the church recently and have defaced it. It has since been resecured,” Boerema said in an August 14 email.
As of September 5, it was reported the church was unlocked. One of the front door knobs was missing and the doors were open. “Insult to injury,” said De Vries. “The front door is still open.”