Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Conserving Heritage in the United Church

By Tim O’Grady

If you ever get a chance, take a drive on the Bow Valley Trail (Highway 1A) west of Cochrane. Arriving at the south-western tip of Ghost Lake, among the rolling foothills and in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, you will see one of Alberta’s historical gems: McDougall Memorial United Church. Built in 1875, this small white church, with its simple wooden frame construction and central entrance and bell tower, is one of the most picturesque churches in Alberta. It is operated by the McDougall Stoney Mission Society, among whose activities include holding commemorative services, interpreting the history of the mission and Morleyville Settlement, and hosting special events such as weddings. While undoubtedly of incredible significance to Alberta’s history, McDougall Memorial United Church is not the only church to have been officially recognized as an historical resource. However, it is somewhat unusual, in that it no longer serves as a church full-time. Fifteen United Churches have been recognized as historic resources in Alberta and most continue to function as active, dynamic buildings for their congregations. This article will explain how heritage is measured and recognized, and will provide practical advice on how to conserve your church’s heritage value.

A note to our readers in BC: this article is written from an Alberta perspective. The government of British Columbia has a heritage program similar to that in Alberta. For more information on conservation in British Columbia, contact BC Heritage or visit

What is Heritage?

A great deal of ink has been spilled attempting to define heritage and differentiate heritage from history. In terms of built heritage (like churches) the difference is fairly simple: history is everything that occurred in and around a site, whereas heritage is how a site manifests its history to a contemporary viewer. Defining heritage can be difficult, and some would say rather subjective. Therefore, an evaluation method has been developed to weigh heritage value based on two considerations: historical significance and integrity. There are several broad categories of historical significance recognized in Alberta that could apply to a site. These include:
• Theme: Does the site embody a particular historical theme important to the community or province?
• Person/Activity/Event: Is the site directly related to a particular person, activity or event of historical importance to the community or province?
• Design/Style/Construction: Does the site embody a significant design, style or construction?
• Information Potential: Does the site represent significant historical information that is not available through any other means?
• Landmark: Has the site served as an important landmark in the community?

The second consideration is historical integrity; basically, how close the site is to its original state. In order to qualify as a historical resource, the site must be in its original location and maintain its original design, environment, materials, workmanship, feeling and associations.

The majority of United Churches 50 years or older (built before 1962) likely have some historical significance. While a site need only have a single heritage value to be considered an historical resource, most have more than one. For example, most of the sites already recognized have been identified as historic for both their architecture and their relationship to the theme of settlement in Alberta. However, some, such as the Ralph Connor Memorial United Church in Canmore, have been linked with significant historical figures (in this case, the author Charles William Gordon, a.k.a. Ralph Connor). Rosedale United Church near Wainwright is another uncommon example. It was built in 1933 and does not exhibit an easily identifiable style, but is valued in the community for its vernacular design.

To determine the heritage value of your church, you’ll have to do some research. If your church has an archives that’s a great place to start, but even a local library, or the Alberta and Northwest Conference Archives in Edmonton will no doubt have important historical information. Look at the history of your church and your community, as well as at some of the larger historical themes in Alberta. Are there significant people associated with your church, or have any important events occurred there? Is it a good example of an architectural style, design, or type of construction? Is it considered an important landmark in the community? If you wish to pursue some form of official recognition, the more information you can provide on your site’s history and heritage value the easier the designation process will be.

Levels of Recognition

There are several levels of historical recognition: municipal, provincial and federal. Municipalities have the ability to recognize sites of local significance in two ways: through listing on an inventory of historic buildings and through municipal designation. Listing on an inventory means that the site qualifies for designation as a Municipal Historical Resource (MHR), but the site has not been yet designated and is not legally protected, nor does it typically qualify for associated benefits. Designation as a MHR is done by the municipality through a bylaw and will only be done through the consent of the owner. Municipal designation legally protects a site from demolition and inappropriate alteration. According to Section 28 of the Alberta Historical Resources Act (2000), a municipality is subject to providing compensation for designating a building. This compensation will vary depending on the municipality, and can include conservation advice and financial incentives. For specifics on benefits of designation as an MHR contact your municipality. Designation as an MHR in Alberta also makes the site eligible for conservation grants through the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation.

Provincial recognition applies to sites which have demonstrated heritage value at a provincial level. There are two types of provincial recognition in Alberta: Provincial Historic Resources (PHR) and Registered Historic Resources (RHR). Both recognize heritage value, though only PHR are legally protected from demolition and inappropriate alteration. Sites recognized as RHR should seek municipal designation if they want legal protection and better access to grant programs.

Sites with a demonstrated value at a national level are eligible for federal recognition. Currently in Alberta there is only one site associated with the United Church that is recognized at a national level – Rundle’s Mission in Sundance Beach on Pigeon Lake. Federal recognition as a national historic site is an honour to be sure, but does not provide legal protection, and there is as present no federal heritage funding program.

Protecting Your Church’s Heritage Value

Whether or not to pursue formal designation for your church is a something only your congregation can decide. Although designation requires that some restrictions are placed on the building, the intent is not to preserve it as a museum. Managed change is a useful way to think about conservation. Not everything must be kept, only those elements that relate directly to the building’s historical significance. These features are known as Character Defining Elements, and they should be retained whenever possible. When doing renovations, less is more. Can something be restored rather than replaced? Only replace material as needed. Rather than replace an entire wooden window for example, replace only the rotten section. If an element is so deteriorated that replacement is necessary, always replace material in kind. For example, if you are replacing wood siding, use new wood siding, not metal or vinyl. If you are having old wooden windows removed, replace them with new wooden units, rather than aluminum or vinyl. If you have to make changes to elements related to identified heritage values, do so in a way that will be reversible in the future. For conservation advice, contact one of the province’s Heritage Conservation Advisors.

Properly conserving your building, whether through designation or just responsible stewardship can have positive impacts on your congregation and your community. Protecting your church’s heritage will add to your congregation’s sense of pride and identity. Your building’s heritage can make it a destination church, attracting new congregants as well as serving as an attractive events venue, thereby increasing church revenues. Historic churches also tend to be prominent in both size and location, and conserving their heritage value will ensure your congregation maintains a high visibility in the community.

The conservation of your church’s heritage can also have a positive impact on the community. Conservation projects have been shown to foster community revitalization, encourage heritage tourism, enhance local cultural life, and add to the distinctive character of the city and community. Finally, heritage conservation is an environmentally sustainable choice which fits well with the United Church of Canada’s stance on environmental issues.

The United Church, as well as its Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist predecessors, had an enormous impact on the history of Alberta and British Columbia. This influence is seen not only in history books, but on the contemporary landscape as well. As owners of significant historic sites, as well as active partners in the community, congregations should take pride in their resources. They should understand why their site has heritage value, and they should conserve that value for their own benefit, as well as that of the community and future generations.

Tim O'Grady is a member of the Alberta and Northwest Conference Historical Society.

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