Recaptured glory: $320K overhaul of Winchester United Church to be celebrated Sunday, April 15

The scaffolding has come down and Winchester United Church wears a revamped stone exterior. Courtesy photo

All are welcome at 11 a.m. rededication service

WINCHESTER — It started with an earth tremor May 24, 2013, which knocked down part of the east wall of Winchester United Church. It was just the start of significant challenges for the 130-year-old building.  

Investigators discovered other walls and buttresses needed work and there were worries about the landmark bell tower.

But the church, originally built by a man born in slavery in the U.S., has rebounded from the challenges of nature and time.  It will celebrate the event with a rededication ceremony Sunday, April 15, as part of the service that starts at 11 a.m. Everyone is welcome.

Keystone Traditional Masonry, an Ashton-based company which worked on the restoration of Rideau Hall, won the competition for the project.

But nature was not quite done.  The Keystone masons had to deal with two hives of bees deep down in the foundation which resisted repeated eviction efforts.   “They kept the men on their toes,” said Keystone owner and mason James Reid.

And then there was a raccoon living in the bell tower.  “One of our masons was terrified and quickly dismounted the scaffold (50 feet in height) while the other masons chased it away,” Reid said.

The Keystone mason crew, including several with roots in the community, worked with John G. Cooke Engineering on a rescue plan which ultimately cost $320,000.

More than 470 square feet of deteriorating limestone had to go — enough stone in 604 separate pieces to cover the face of the bell tower from the foundation to well past the “Methodist Church 1883” stone sign high above .

Today the Limestone Lady of  St. Lawrence Street has recaptured her former glory.  The public is enjoying the sight of the old bell tower freed of scaffolding, protective fabric and construction equipment.

“The support of the congregation and the community cannot be overstated and we are forever grateful,” said trustee chair Bruce Calhoun.  “Fund-raising was done by word of mouth, multiple events and very generous bequeaths and donations.”

To everyone’s relief, the bell tower proved to be structurally strong.  But it required several more months of work by six masons and assistants  to replace stone and mortar on the tower and buttresses.

The original Winchester quarry stone has a high clay content which makes it susceptible to “spider cracking” in seasonal freeze and thaws, Reid said..

The replacement limestone from a quarry near Quebec City, is higher quality, matches the older stone and should resist future winters much better.

Special stones like a window sill and buttress capstones required extra attention.  But a critical arch stone could not to removed without bringing down surrounding stone.  It was refaced with a tightly fitting stone cover and secured with stainless steel pins and epoxy.

The hard work is expected to reduce the remaining work required on the south wall.  More fund raising will be required.

The challenges of the last five years show what can happen when a community rallies in the face of challenge.

Indeed, the latest chapter of Winchester United Church history is a continuation of a story that has been unfolding for generations.

It is the story of people like Isaac Johnson, an expert stone mason who escaped slavery in Kentucky to build many fine buildings across Eastern Ontario and northern New York state.

A painstaking man, he tore down the first wall of the church when it had reached the top of windows.  The problem was that it was a half-inch out of line.

It is the story of church members who laboured on the building, donating materials and their labour.  One man paid the ultimate price: the injuries he suffered lifting a heavy stone led to his death. The original stone was cut and hauled from a quarry two kilometres south of the village.  The mortar used to build was created using dangerous blasting powder to break the stone and then heating the dust for three days in a kiln.

“It is remarkable how the builders were able to complete their task by using comparatively primitive tools,” said Calhoun.

The building of the church is also the story of how serious debate and deep division can ultimately strengthen a community.

The Methodist founders of the church had very different ideas.  They were all staunch evangelicals who played a strong role in Winchester deciding to ban alcohol 20 years before official Prohibition and staying dry long after the great experiment failed.

But they came from different parts of the world.  Some like the Episcopalian Methodists who drove the first stage of the project, the unique circular Sunday School building  in 1881, came originally from the U.S.

They resented the Wesleyan Methodists who originated in Britain and for a time had a monopoly on performing marriages.

Each group had its own idea on where and what to build.  Over several years construction material was moved from building site to building site.

Nature intervened for the first time in the church’s history when a big storm flattened a partially built structure and scattered building materials.

Fortunately human and natural conflict ended when the final stage of the main church was completed by a unified Methodist community.

The church has been through many changes.  Wood-burning stoves, kerosene lamps and the original slate roof were all replaced.  The first electric fixtures arrived about 1926.

As for the bell at the top of the tower, Calhoun said inspection shows that it is “in excellent state of repair.  The bell was cast in 1884 and it looks as sound today as it was back then.”

 

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