Demolished Church Tells a Tale

The former Fifth Avenue Methodist church (more recently, Ecclesiax church) was demolished on June 21.

The Cornerstone of a demolished church tells a tale

By Frank Johnson

The demolition of the former Fifth Avenue Methodist Church (more recently, Ecclesiax Church) at Monk and Fifth on June 21 sparked a trail of coincidences, synchronicities and epiphanies that ranged from support for homeless women to a marriage at the church and a Methodist memorial garden. The trails could be traced as far back as the aftermath of the Luftwaffe raid on Coventry Cathedral in England in November 1940 and to its renowned Cross of Nails.

When Andrea Ross asked Marco Manconi of Neoteric Developments for the cornerstone of the church at Fifth and Bank, little did she realize the tales that it would reveal.

The church was built between 1900 and 1921 by the Holiness Movement and the pink granite cornerstone commemorates that mighty community building effort.

Manconi kindly agreed and the stone, all 115 kilos of it, was carefully removed by Demolition Plus. Foreman Matt Billard also retrieved the time capsule from within the stone (see article below).

Meanwhile I documented the start of demolition in the early hours of June 22. The morning-after scene recalled an infamous wartime bombing raid. I grew up in Nuneaton, just eight miles from the centre of Coventry. The story of the raid of November 14–15, 1940, was deeply engrained in my childhood psyche. My mother had visited the devastation on the day after the raid and would often tell of it. From that wreckage a cross was made of some mediaeval nails that had fallen from the roof. This is now widely adopted as a symbol of reconciliation. If you look carefully at the picture of the demolished Glebe church, you’ll see on the far concrete pillar the mangled remnant of a construction artefact in the shape of a cross.

The pink granite cornerstone of the church was removed during demolition and will be moved to a memorial garden at Wesley Acres, Picton, Ontario, courtesy of Grant Wolfe and his colleagues.   Photos: Frank Johnson

Overwhelmed by sadness at the destruction of a much-loved community hub, octagonal sanctuary, concert space and basement gathering place for so many of all walks and faiths, I wrote to Barry Hobin, well-known local architect, whose own family had strong connections to that church and to the “holiness movement” legacy in the Ottawa Valley. He replied, “I was married in that sanctuary. As an architect, I was always impressed by the care and feeling of that space.” He said he “spent countless hours with his father digging out a small storage space under the side entry stairs.”

While I was mulling this over and arranging for moving the stone, I received an email from Cornerstone Housing for Women with their summer newsletter and fund appeal. Still trying to come to terms with the loss of a community space that meant so much to so many, we made a small donation to Cornerstone Housing as a step towards reconciliation and moving on. Imagine our astonishment when we saw on their website that Barry Hobin of Hobin Architecture had generously offered to match donations from new donors.

So out of the loss of the church, the deep mourning for a similar loss 80 years ago, the emergence of a symbol of hope and reconciliation amid the wreckage, and the request for a keepsake, came hope eternal. And an epiphanous multitude of interwoven threads.

Telling this story the next day to my friend Mark, he remarked that a rose bush his wife planted on her birthday just three months before she died 21 years ago has flowered every year on that same day. Creation groans. We are not alone.

Perhaps when we consider the other sacred and public spaces within our city, each redolent with similar stories, each threatened with demolition and “progress,” we need to pause and contemplate the broader implications of the words written under, or said upon, the Cross of Nails: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and plant our own rose bushes of remediation for each tragic loss.

We should also listen to the wisdom of the Indigenous peoples who have been telling us for centuries that places both natural and constructed can have deep psychological and spiritual meaning going far beyond the physical and ecological content. The cornerstone speaks to the physicality of the sacred space but also addresses a legacy of faith in that place which continues to be active through support for charities such as Cornerstone Housing.

And at the end, facing the loss of our local spiritual gathering space, let us return to Cornerstone Housing for Women with their goal “to help a woman find hope, healing and housing” ( May this broader scattering of the resources be the outcome of the demolition of this local touchstone of reality. And may those scattered seeds grow out of the darkness and multiply a hundredfold.

Frank Johnson is an engineer, photographer and local business owner.

The time capsule Photos: Mark Blevis
A hand-written letter dated November 16, 1921 was found in the mason-jar time capsule with the cornerstone of the recently demolished church at Fifth and Monk.
The big reveal of the contents of the time capsule took place in July at Irene’s Pub.
Shown are Frank Johnson and Grant Wolfe.  

Time preserved in a mason jar

By Mark Blevis

There’s something magical about time capsules. They’re more than just exhibits; they’re portals for travel to the past and to see the world as it was. They should contain treasure – stories and context-setting items that tell of life in the day, things that help bridge two time periods.

The opportunity to travel back in time and witness such treasure brought five people to Irene’s Pub on a beautiful July 9 evening. Ontario had just relaxed some of the COVID restrictions around social gatherings and most of the people around that patio table had already received their second vaccination. This was a reminder of the more carefree life we still remember after 15 months of hibernation.

In the middle of the table was a mason-jar time capsule that had been recovered from the Ecclesiax Church, a community effort documented in an article by Frank Johnson. For almost exactly 100 years, as close to the exact day as you can get by chance after a century, the time capsule was entombed atop the 115-kilo cornerstone, engraved:

ERECTED A.D. 1900-1921

That mason jar sat in our home for nearly two weeks before the group could meet for the opening. The suspense was overwhelming and every time I walked past the jar, I was tempted to pick it up, shake it and study it like a present under a Christmas tree. I imagined a group of people in their Sunday best witnessing the laying of the cornerstone just as the world was recovering from the Spanish flu. Little did these people know that, 100 years later, as the world was recovering from a modern pandemic, their treasure would sit on a table next to beers at a pub just two blocks from where they had stood.

The beer glasses were eventually removed, the table wiped and adorned with medical-grade forceps, photographic tweezers, archive-quality sleeves and cotton archival gloves for photographic print mounting. We may not be museum curators or forensic scientists, but we took the process as seriously as possible (though we did make a joke about the prospect of releasing a century-old virus when the jar was opened).

The jar was tightly packed with paper, all of which survived the century very well, and contained a collection of items seemingly thrown together at the last minute. A handwritten letter on The Holiness Movement Bible College stationery (boasting the address 910 Bank Street, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) dated November 16, 1921 opened, with promise. “First, a few things of interest for those who may read this in years to come. This church was first built in 1900, a frame building 39 x 40. Rebuilt in its present form this year, 1921.” It went on to list names of clergy, church and committee members, and Sunday school faculty. There were also four church newsletters from seemingly randomly selected dates, three from Ottawa and one from Chicago, and two Canadian one-cent coins of different sizes, both dated 1920 and both boasting images of King George.

As the group scanned the collection of items, now carefully placed in archival sleeves, we talked about what we hoped we might have pulled from the capsule: newspaper pages, letters about life at the time and hopes for the future, and photographs of people in the community.

So much has changed in the last 100 years it’s hard to say what the world will be like in 2121. I wonder if the myriad new development projects, commercial and residential, are planting time capsules. I hope they are, and I hope they carefully prepare and pack material items and letters that tell the stories of life and the people who live in our community today.

Mark Blevis lives in the Glebe surrounded on all sides by the non-stop noise, fumes, rudeness, disruption and inconvenience of demolition and construction.

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