By Teddy Ryan
When people think of turning a church into a home, there’s one thing that may not immediately come to mind: the height of the windows. Typically, churches are designed for services where the light shines down from above on worshippers and that light is spectacular, especially when it filters through at 11:00 in the morning. For Nancy Woodall and her late husband, Patrick Nash this was only one of many surprises in their quest to turn a decommissioned church into a beautiful, inspired home.
The search for the perfect church began as Woodall and Nash, a new couple who shared a common love for the arts, met and fell in love in Fenelon Falls, where they both lived at the time. Nash, an art framer with his own framing business and Woodall a visual artist with a respectable body of work, decided to combine their separate artistic quests into a common one: to find a church that when renovated could provide them with a home and studio. As two people with mature careers in the arts starting out on a new journey together, they were keen to find just the right church.
It was a journey that would take them through many of the country roads in Hastings County, from Belleville to Stirling, and Madoc to Malone. To refine their search, they sought the help of Jennifer Reid, a real estate agent and got to work seeking their sacred space.
In the months that followed, they looked at a number of decommissioned churches but many of them were in very rough shape. “In one case, the second floor had been installed by one renovator and then demolished by the next. Not everyone who wants to renovate a church is a planner or a carpenter. We looked at every option even a duplex in Madoc, but that wasn’t at all what we were looking for,” Woodall explained.
With the help of Reid, Woodall and Nash found what they were looking for in the former St. Bartholomew Anglican Church in Bannockburn – a charming white ‘brick’ clad building that was structurally sound and in reasonably good condition. The congregation was no longer able to support it financially and found that they had to sell. As Reid remembers “All I had with me that day was a Canon Sure Shot camera and I didn’t think it would do but it captured the awesome light coming through the windows, perfectly.”
And so, on a cold, sunny day in early December of 2005, the couple moved in and set about taking care of ‘first things first.’
Right from the get-go it was like camping – very cold camping. The furnace couldn’t quite manage to keep two humans warm all the time and it sure let them know that they would be purchasing an-other one — and soon. Many of the windows were single glazed and would also need replacement. The couple put those windows on the ‘as soon as spring comes’ list. Whatever calamity raised its head; Woodall and Nash embraced the pioneer spirit of the situation and dealt with every need with love, humour and creativity.
And then, with the frigid winter upon them they turned their minds to creating a second floor where they could install a master bedroom with an ensuite bathroom, which they could temporarily heat with a space heater.
As the church had 14’ ceilings, this meant building a complete second storey and stairs to connect the two floors. The entire plumbing project followed this construction. They designed it in such a way that they could run the plumbing from the back of the church where the male and female bathrooms and the kitchen had been located, all the way to the front where the plumbing was needed in this new incarnation. And now there was a serviceable bathroom on both floors as well as a lovely bedroom with magical views.
One of the major considerations of renovating an old church is the sheer size of the space. Churches are often designed to hold hundreds of people. Add to that the great height of the ceiling and you’ve got a lot of room to fill. For Woodall and Nash that meant levelling the altar floor and creating a 700 sq. ft. dining room. Now, a dining room of that magnitude needs a window that’s worthy of such generous space. The couple removed a beautiful specimen from the top of the church and repositioned it in the dining room. Not an easy feat, but Nash was up to the task.
Woodall recalls that there was a lot of work that had to be done where the results were not always obvious. “We took all the panelling off the walls so we could insulate behind it — and then put it all back again. It was just too expensive a venture to cover the walls in anything else,” she said, “so after we reinstalled the panelling, we filled the seams with plaster, painted it and it looked great but you’d never know we did all that work behind the scenes.”
The floor also had to come up. Woodall remembers prying every single floorboard up and then re-placing them with new lumber. “The new wooden planks weren’t straight so we had to wedge them into place on the floor. In the end, though, they looked perfect.”
Just as the two new owners had distinctly different personalities, they also had disparate but complementary talents and skills to bring to the renovation project. Nash brought the ethereal, ‘the spiritual sense’ to his vision, while Woodall brought a warm, old farmhouse vibe. Yet they both did the hard work together.
“While Patrick and I had very different ideas, we had very similar tastes in aesthetics and worked well together.” She recalls, “He was leaning toward a gothic sensibility while I wanted to make it cozier, open it up yet keep it elegant.” But these two new church owners found a miraculous middle ground in shaping the creation of their home. Nash’s deep sense of the spiritual nature of the space kept him tuned into its sensibilities even when it seemed a bit over-cautious.
Nancy says “Patrick simply refused to consider locating the bedroom or the bathroom on the altar.
He felt the old church wouldn’t approve.” They did however find a way to enjoy the altar space.
“In the early days before we leveled the altar, we would turn on the music and just dance after a hard day’s work. We danced on the altar all through all our early days until we turned it into our dining room. It was so romantic!”
Nash had an affinity with the spiritual nature of the building. He took special care not to speak ill of the place in its presence – he didn’t want to offend the spirits. The choir loft offered an opportunity to continue the theme of spirituality. Nash built arches, pedestals, sconces and generally places where he could honour the Divine throughout their new home.”
And although it’s not Woodall’s style, she somehow felt just fine with bringing the sacred into the new residence. “I’m not normally into gargoyles or angels as a part of the décor but Patrick’s sense of it was that they belonged here. So, we scoured yard sales and auctions and found, just as if they were waiting for us, two large, sculpted angels to bring home.”
With a firm belief that the Divine has a great sense of humour, Woodall and Nash chose a couple of statues depicting two very different aspects of nature. One had eyes raised heaven-ward and hands folded in prayer, while the other was far less pious and much more passionate. With these two forces, they felt they had found just the right balance of nature and would continue to nurture goodwill with the church.
The placement of the angels in the remodeled church meant that the pillars that were there would not accommodate them, so Woodall designed and Nash built pillars and archways that would highlight the angels’ place in their new home.
Woodall said, “I would sketch out what I wanted, like a column or a post and I’d come home from work, and there they’d be all done!”
She continued saying that the history of the old church was very much a part of their sense of their new home. She said that “When we thought of all the christenings, weddings, funerals, celebrations and tragedies that have been commemorated here, we felt the energy of the church’s past and its relationship with generations of parishioners. We felt the church liked us because in everything we did, we had good intentions. It’s like the church approved of us and made us welcome.
When the renovations started, local folks would drop in to see what was happening to their church. Woodall remembers that “They were often surprised to find someone cooking in the kitchen, but being the kindly neighbours they were, they would stop and visit for a bit and some even offered to help.”
However, even in the midst of an incredibly inspired journey, tragedy can strike. And so it did for this couple. After what had started out to be a promising, enduring romance and one heck of an amazing five years, Nash passed away in his sleep one night in November. He had suffered a massive heart attack and couldn’t be revived.
Woodall was numb and devastated all at once. Her grief almost took over; however, there was still so much to be done. Projects had been started and needed to be finished.
With some time behind her and a lot of help from some very good friends, Woodall threw herself into picking up the work that they had initially done together. She knew that Nash would have wanted her to.
“There was railing and panelling to be installed, plastering, painting and restoring to be completed. I don’t know how I was able to do it, but I felt his presence there … I knew Patrick was with me.”
Woodall worked through the winter finishing projects and sewing 10’ drapes to help keep the warmth in. She was working through her grief.
With most of the planned work behind her, Woodall felt that the memories were too strong. And so, there came a time when she decided to sell.
As luck (or serendipity) would have it, soon after her decision to sell was made, she got a phone call from a friend who worked in a local shop in Madoc. Her friend relayed that she had, at that very moment, a woman in her shop that was in town looking to buy a renovated church. Of course by this time the renovations in the church were finished and the building was quite something to behold.
The rest, as they say, is history. Woodall moved on. She found another house in Madoc which she also renovated. The new owner moved in to what was now a very livable home; and a beautiful old church found its new purpose and was reincarnated yet again. And the cycle of life continues.