City won't designate St. Giles as a heritage building, clearing the way for demolition

As he stood in front of Hamilton’s council chambers Tuesday, the emotion in Rev. Ian Sloan’s voice was evident.

Mild mannered and soft spoken, the minister at New Vision United Church told city councillors why his congregation just couldn’t maintain St. Giles United Church anymore.

It’s a beautiful building. Built mostly in 1912, the church has many heritage features, including its wooden pews and stained glass windows. Sloan isn’t happy about demolishing it, he said, but it needs to happen.

“It is not a deep-pocketed developer in front of you this afternoon,” he said. “It’s your neighbours.”

“We know it is time for the building to go down to the dust with its ancestors.”

New Vision merged with St. Giles in 2015, and has chosen the former Centenary United Church downtown as its home. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Councillors agreed with him. City council’s planning committee rejected a heritage designation that would have saved the old church.

Council still has to ratify that decision on Friday. Once it does, New Vision can demolish the building at 85 Holton Ave. S. and 679 Main St. E..

It’s a painful subject, Sloan said. But it’s the reality of older Protestant denominations these days. Every year, he said, congregations like his hope it will be the year “people will come back.” But every year, they don’t.

Now, “we are more realistic in our hopes.”

By all accounts, the grand old church needs work. New Vision merged with St. Giles in 2015, but only needed one building. So they chose Centenary United, which is located next to the MacNab bus terminal. The congregation hopes that church will double as a bustling music venue.

St. Giles, Sloan said, needs about $1 million in repairs. It costs $90,000 per year to maintain, and New Vision hasn’t maintained it for two years.

St. Giles was the venue of a mayoral debate in 2014. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Three years ago, said New Vision chair Daniel Peace, the gas bill for one February was $3,000.

The methodology of getting rid of church artifacts raised some eyebrows. St. Giles was on a list of about 8,000 properties due to be inspected for possible heritage designation, which would make it illegal to demolish.

In a recent charity auction, New Vision auctioned off items the city had already identified as heritage, said Chelsey Tyers, cultural heritage planner.

The missing items include some of the stained glass windows and interior features such as bells and pendant lights. But Tyers said she has no way of knowing what’s gone.

Tyers recommended council immediately designate it as heritage. It’s an example of Gothic Revival architecture, she said, and it meets eight of the nine criteria to save it.

Left money in their wills

Resident Marie Sharp opposed the demolition too. In a letter, she said she wants its contents preserved and the building given a heritage designation.

“Many members of this congregation over the years have left considerable amount of money in their wills to support and preserve this church,” she wrote.

“Although many of the founding members are no longer here, their descendants consider this building to be a significant part of the past.”

Matthew Green, Ward 3 councillor, said he toured St. Giles and saw its state of disrepair. There are four other Protestant churches nearby, three of which are empty. He sided with Sloan.

But said, “I share the personal anguish I can hear in your voice right now.”