Former area resident puts up painting to buy Zion church
By Jenn Watt
When he thinks of the Zion United Church, David Chambers is filled with memories of youth and family. The building on East Road in Carnarvon was where he went to Sunday school, where he met with the Scout troop, where he watched Christmas pageants and listened to his aunt sing in the church choir.
His father, the late Frank Chambers, did maintenance on the building, helping with the additions and building the steeple. “There’s a lot of the Chambers in it,” said David Chambers during a phone call from British Columbia, where he now lives.
Following amalgamation of the Zion and Minden United Church congregations, in 2018 a vote was held on which church should remain open, with more than two-thirds voting to hold services at Minden’s church, now called Highland Hills United Church.
The Zion United Church, built in 1891, was listed with Century 21 and RE/MAX Professionals North by the Trustees of the Highland Hills United Church on May 25, 2019. The current asking price is $249,000.
After thinking about the importance of the church to his family and to the community, Chambers said he decided he would try to raise the money to buy the property by selling a treasured family possession: an original painting by Group of Seven artist Franz Johnston.
He put the oil painting, Trapper’s Cabin (North Bay area), online on Kijiji with an asking price of $350,000 – an amount he said he knows is inflated.
“I’m trying to get much more than the painting is really worth and I was really hoping to find someone who is very wealthy, who collects art – especially Canadian art – and someone who actually wants to help out,” Chambers said. “I’m well aware it’s not worth that amount of money.”
The painting hung in the home of Chambers’s uncle William Bate, who founded Bate Chemical in Toronto. Chambers lived with his aunt and uncle when he was attending York Mills Collegiate and during that time he remembers admiring the 21-by-17-inch landscape painting.
“Me being in art, I was always very interested in it and even when I was painting, I’d go to the paintings [in the house] and I’d look and see how these master painters did their paint strokes,” he said.
“The painting is very dear to me. When it comes to something like this, to do something good for the community … I would sell it in an instant.”
Chambers said if successful in buying the building, he would keep it as a community space.
Joan Chapple, one of the trustees overseeing the sale on behalf of Highlands Hills United Church, said she would be pleased if someone were to buy the building with the intention of keeping it open to the community, but cautioned that along with the sale price is the cost of upkeep.
Chapple’s ancestors helped to found the church when there was little else in the Carnarvon area.
“They decided that they needed a church of their own in Carnarvon. There was the Twelve Mile Lake Church that had been built the year before Zion and it was Presbyterian. These people were more bent towards the Methodist religion, so they had a [fundraising] social at my great-grandmother’s house and they raised the first money to start building this church,” Chapple said.
The early history documents of the Zion church reveal a community focused on creating a church, with residents pitching in, donating timbers, holding work bees and raising money. Chapple’s grandfather, A.W. Moore was one of the original names on the church committee list along with J. Hopkins, J. Cook, R. Baker, Wm. Cowan, R. Moore and J. Higginbottom.
“My earliest memory was joining the choir as a little girl and going to Sunday school and my mother was a Sunday school teacher,” Chapple said. “We had a choir leader and organist by the name of Ralph Hussey. He was a music teacher for the whole area. He lived in Carnarvon, so he became our church organist. We had a great choir. … As a result of his influence, Zion became known as the musical church and it maintained that throughout its life.”
Dedicated in September of 1891, the church would undergo renovations more than 50 years later to accommodate its popularity in the community. It would also need repairs when lightning caused a fire in part of the building. Chambers said his dad was involved in fixing up the building and in
erecting the steeple, which wasn’t part of the original.
“That was a hallmark of Zion. The people did the work. … Frank was one of them,” Chapple remembered, laughing at the memory of him up on the roof.
Sinclair Russell also remembers the energy poured into the church. His family moved to the area in 1904 and remained deeply involved with the goings on at the Zion church.
“The Carnarvon church was the centre of the community. There was nothing else. Especially in Carnarvon, there wasn’t even a town hall or anything,” Russell said. “The church was the centre of the community and families like my family, for one, we would go down to the church every single day for something. Boy Scouts was there, Cubs was there, Girl Guides were there and different church meetings ... were held there. There were times of the week when my family, one of us or two of us, would be at the church every single day.”
He can recall with a great deal of precision the interior of the building and what functions different areas served. He said that the stained glass windows were donated by area families, including one dedicated to his parents.
Russell said he would be pleased if the church would remain a public institution.
“To me, it boggles the mind that it’s not still open,” he said, listing off potential uses for the space, which he suggested could be a heritage building, hosting weddings, meetings, community engagements, funerals, and craft groups.
Chapple said she has also found it difficult to come to terms with the closure of the Zion United Church, which has been a comfort to her throughout her life.
“It was my place to go to be safe. ... It’s always been my place to go and I never thought for a minute that it wouldn’t always be there for me. So it was really hard to see it as just a building,” she said, but noted that it was the people, not the place, that had provided that sense of security.
“Really, when it comes right down to it, it was the people within the walls that meant a lot to me. Those are the people that made it that safe place and hopefully we can bring that caring and family feeling wherever we go.”
The Stanhope Museum has a display of artifacts related to the Zion United Church, something that Chapple appreciates. “I feel really good about that,” she said.
Chambers said he intends to keep his painting up for sale for a few more weeks. It can be viewed at https://www.kijiji.ca/v-art-collectibles/delta-surrey-langley/original-real-painting-by-franz-johnston-group-of-seven/1480062781.