History of St. George’s Anglican Church Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada 🇨🇦
Building and Establishment
In the Spring of 1785 after a long winter in Louisbourg. A group of loyalists and soldiers set up the town of Sydney. Amongst the first matter of business was to build a church for people and soldiers to pray in. British engineers from the 33rd Regiment of Foot, under Lieutenant-Colonel Yorke, with the help of masons, built the church. King George III supplied £500 in 1787 to Governor Des Bares to aid in construction. It was not near enough money so the engineers looked to the ruins of the Fortress Louisbourg for finely cut stone to be used for construction. Some stone, which was brought from Caen, France, was used specifically as finish stones at the corners of the building and around the windows and doorway. The building was completed in 1791.
The early church has been described by the Rev. RJ: Uniacke as having, “…consisted simply of a nave, a plain building, constructed of grey stone, having a large venetian window at the east end.” The building was approximately eighteen by twelve meters and had three circular leaded windows along each of the north and south walls. There was no pews. Benches or chairs may have been brought for the gentry by servants or slaves for services. Soldiers and commoners were expected to stand during sometimes three hour services. In 1803 an additional £300 was sent to St George’s by the Imperial Government. The main reason for this grant being that the church was to serve a two-fold purpose; Garrison Chapel and Parish Church. It served this way until removal of the troops in 1854, to fight in the Crimean War.
The first minister of St George’s was the chaplain, of the 33rd Regiment, Chaplain-Reverend Benjamin Lovell. During church construction, first recorded entry in what was known as the”District and Parish of Sydney” was the baptism of Frederick, Amelia, son of Benjamin and Marie Lovell who was born on April 12th 1785 and christened on April 18th 1785.
The oldest antiques in the church are two wooden plaques. One with the Ten Commandments the other with The Lords Prayer and The Apostles Creed, they are dated to 1891. They were originally hung on the Eastern wall behind the alter. Today they remain intact and now hang on the Western wall.
Reverend Ranna Cossit was the first non military pastor at St. George’s. His house was not built for he and his family until 1787. Jost House is older, 1785, it was originally a business catering to the needs of the growing community.
A Gothic Revival
Originally St. George’s didn’t have a steeple. In 1821 a £250 grant from the coal mines revenue allowed for the building of a central tower and cupola. Unfortunately, it was to heavy for the church and caused the south wall to buckle. In 1839 another grant of £150 was authorized to build the first tower at the front of the church it was 96 feet high and built of wood. This tower was blown down in the 1873 August Gale. The bell from the tower was said to have been found two miles away from the church. This tower was replaced in 1888 with a stone tower with a spire that stands today.
In 1853 a chancel and vestry was built on the Eastern end of the church. The congregation fundraised to build the chancel by selling ‘in memory of plaques’ to adorn the walls of the chancel. It was first believed these were the displaced grave stones from the section of the grave yard on which the chancel was built. Recent research has revealed that these are indeed ‘in memory of plaques’. There are at least three and perhaps as many as five bodies that remain buried under the chancel. More research is required to find the fate of the displaced stones, they were possibly wood and are long lost.
Through the early 1860s the Church was rebuilt from its foundations in a Gothic Revival style. This repaired the south wall that had been damaged in 1821. The windows were replaced with gothic peaks and stained glass. A grand Gothic Arch opened from floor to ceiling with the words “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty” printed on it; dividing the chancel from the sanctuary. A smaller Gothic Arch was built at the entrance to the church with the words “On Earth Peace Goodwill Toward Men”. The body of a Sergeant was discovered under the main isle of the sanctuary during the establishment of a basement in 1974. His body was buried under the chancel just beyond the cement wall of the basement. Today, St George’s is much the same as it appeared in 1873 after its last major renovation.
“The church’s stone Gothic Revival style, rare in Nova Scotia, is valued as an expression of the contemporary missionary ideals and of an expansive period in the history of the British Empire and English Christianity.” (Ken Donovan pages 34 & 35; Witness to a New Nation presented by Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, June 2017, ISBN 978-0-9868733-4-8).
St. George’s In Modern Times
St. George’s has faced some hard times throughout the past decade. A Parish amalgamation was conscripted, by the Anglican Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, in 2003 of four local CBRM Parishes. The historic Parish of St George’s was dissolved and all of its assets absorbed into the new Parish of the Ressurection. The church was used under special circumstance; Weddings, Funerals and Baptisms along with four celebratory services each year. It was opened for tourists during the summer and fall by volunteers, catering to the growing cruise ship industry.
In winter of 2013 the furnace water pipes froze at St George’s. This happening, the result of a motion passed by the Parish of the Ressurection’s Parish Council to stop any and all funding to heat the church. All services at St George’s were suspended by Parish Council as well at that time. This action lead to the abandonment of the church, it was left in ruins. The church went without heat for three long years. In the wake of this the walls of the sanctuary and chancel began to heave and buckle, from the thaw/freeze cycle in Cape Breton. The plaster on the walls cracked; large pieces fell off in places. Further, because of flooding, brought about by both the broken pipes and a leak in the basement, mold issues developed. Since 2013 a group of volunteers have worked tirelessly to raise funds for the historic church. They do this by keeping the church open for the cruise ship season(soliciting donations) and organizing fundraising concerts. Enough money was raised to have the heating system repaired and stop the leaks. The mold issues have disappeared now that the building is dry and heated.
The church was also in need of a new roof. Two portions, the worst parts, were replaced. This with monies fundraised and the help of a CBRM Heritage grant.
The 1910 boutique style Casavant Organ was seriously deteriorated due to a lack of repair and environmental conditions. In 2015, Jean Francois Milot joined the friends of St George’s, since then and the Fall of 2019 he fully restored the organ. The job he did was spectacular. Unfortunately, he passed away in an auto accident in 2020. We are forever indebted to him for his service and dedication to the historic organ and St. George’s.
The number of cruise ship visitors had grown to a high of approximately 25,000 people per season by 2020. The lions share of the monies required to maintain, upkeep and restore the building has been generated by these visitors, offerings. The financial loss, due to the Covid 19 Pandemic, and subsequent rebuilding of the cruise ship industry will have a disastrous impact on the financial future, and potentially the survival, of St George’s. The heating of the building is the greatest concern. It costs between $8,000 and $10,000 to heat a year. We will have to depend on fundraising events once the quarantine is over and public donations to acquire the necessary funds. Otherwise, the church will quickly begin to fall back into ruin. Above all else it must be heated to survive.
St. George’s has a Royal Foundation meaning it was built by a King of England and is a place of worship for the British Royal Family. It is also designated both a CBRM and Provincial Heritage Site.
Until 1833 St. George’s was an ecumenical church, serving all faiths from throughout Cape Breton. Many Roman Catholics were married from St. Georg’s during this time; as it was the only Christian Church on the Island, for most of this time. It is the oldest building in Sydney and the Oldest Church on Cape Breton. It is the fourth oldest Anglican Church in Canada.
St George’s is one of; if not the most important, intact Historic buildings on Cape Breton Island. Since 1785 the church has consistently served the people of Cape Breton. With the exception of the three years when it was left abandoned. It played a pinnacle role in the early years of Colonialism in Cape Breton. The positions of church Warden were the only elected positions in the Colony and these positions held great power in the affairs of the Colony of Cape Breton. The important role of the church,in early colonialism and the development of Sydney and Cape Breton, cannot be understated.
This monument to Cape Breton’s History remains in undeniable and imminent danger of being lost! If lost there is nothing that can replace its uniqueness and important witness to Colonial Cape Breton and beyond. This story is perpetual crossing 235 years of Sydney’s history through war and peace, prosperity, recession and depression. The historic church is a testament to Cape Breton’s independence as a Colony of it’s own until 1820. It is also witness to the rise and fall of the coal industry, steel industry, two world wars and Cape Breton’s future.
St George’s stands as perhaps the most important building perpetually in service on Cape Breton Island. The reality is as of today, perhaps more than ever, it is in danger of being lost forever. St. George’s is the modern day equivalent to Moxham’s Castle. Without a groundswell of community support for St George’s, along with monetary donations, her future is dangerously precarious.
Anglican Parish of the Resurrection
St. George’s Heritage Committee
P.O. Box 801 Sydney, Nova Scotia B1P 1T0
Facebook: Historic St. George’s
Be sure to note in the memo of the check St. George’s Maintenance Fund and
all funds will go specifically to saving St. George’s
a CRA Charitable Tax Receipt will be issued to you for your donation.