“The Spending of the Years” — St. Ann’s Church Marks its 185th Anniversary

The church is easy to find. Along the highway leading to Westcock there is an eye catching sign: St Ann’s Anglican Church Turn Right. For nearly two centuries parishioners have been turning right to this church, once featured in a poem by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (1860–1943).

It reads: As I came over Westcock Hill/My heart was full of tears, /Under the summers pomp I heard/The spending of the years /I wandered down to Westcock Church,/The old grey church in the wood./Kneeling, I heard my fathers voice/In that hushed solitude The reference was to the poets father, Rev. G.G. Roberts, rector of St Ann’s from 1860 to 1874.

Entitled Westcock Hill the poem is dated in Roberts handwriting October 14, 1934. The poet had previously made a nostalgic trip to boyhood haunts in the Tantramar region, and this poem was one result. Although he lived but a few years in the rectory or old parsonage on the other side of Westcock Hill, Roberts was never to forget his roots. Dozens of poems, numerous short stories and several novels bear the distinct imprint of the Tantramar.

By 1934, the church was well over a century old. Visiting it in 2002, one is immediately struck by a sense of permanence and stability. Constructed by skilled workmen, some of whom were in the shipbuilding trade, this church was built to last. Recently, I had an opportunity to ascend to the topmost attic of St. Ann’s, for a look at the details of construction. It was built of native pine and spruce; its hand hewn timbers carefully morticed. The beams and rafters illustrated in the accompanying photos speak for themselves. Note the use of wooden nails, sometimes called trunnels. These hand cut pegs have one special advantage. They allow joints to move with atmospheric changes. Once the basic structure of the building is uncovered, its easy to understand why St. Ann’s has withstood such historic storms as the Saxby Gale of 1869 and the numerous 20th century hurricanes.

The original specifications for the Church may be found in the early records of St. Ann’s, housed in the Mount Allison University Archives. Signed by W. Botsford and D. Starr, the detailed instructions make for interesting reading 185 years later. Here are a few examples: The frame must be in every respect substantial The building is to be enclosed with spruce boards and shingled. Before shingling, all joints are to be covered with birch bark The floor of the church, chancel and gallery is to be covered in tongued and grooved boards of good clear spruce stuff. And so it goes on for several pages; as every item of construction is clearly specified for the benefit of the builders.

The church was constructed in 1817 on land donated by William Botsford (1763–1864), longtime MLA for Westmorland and Speaker of the House of Assembly. (See Flashback for July 03.) It follows the neoclassical design popular in the early nineteenth century. The belfry with its lantern shaped design is of particular interest. A small stained glass window depicting a lily, the symbol of St. Ann, is regrettably no longer visible on the inside. It was placed in memory of parishioners Clayton and Sadie Milner. The main side windows are of clear blown glass, designed to allow the maximum amount of light to flood the sanctuary. The east window in the chancel and the main west window are of stained glass. The latter was given in memory of Rev. C.R. Wiggins who served nearly a half century as rector — from 1880 to 1927.

We have some idea of the original interior of the church, before it was altered in the 1870s; thanks to a report to the Diocesan Church Society by Rev. G.G. Roberts.

Two major changes had taken place with the closure of the gallery and removal of the original triple deck pulpit. The rector wrote: With the full consent of pewholders and by means of liberal contributions both in money and work from those in the neighborhood, the interior of the building has been rearranged. The old gallery and pews have been taken out and two blocks of open and free seats have been substituted, leaving a broad centre aisle. The [new pews] are neatly stained and varnished and the rest of the interior painted.

He went on: A partition has been removed by which about ten feet has been added to the interior of the church. A porch eleven feet square has been added to the west end. The porch has an open roof, ceiled with pine, stained and varnished. The chancel end has been vastly improved by a new prayer desk, altar rails, carpets and especially by a handsome East Window, the last mentioned being the gift of personal friends outside the Parish.

While architectural purists might object to these changes, one cannot help but catch the enthusiasm of the rector. Essentially, he was describing the St.Ann’s that we know today. Fortunately, one aspect of the interior, the barrel-vaulted ceiling, was not changed. It continues to account for the excellent acoustic effects found at St. Ann’s.

During the early colonial period it was not uncommon for Anglican churches to wait for several years before being consecrated. Although built the year following the death of Rev. Charles Inglis (1734–1816) the first Bishop of Nova Scotia; whose diocese included New Brunswick, St Ann’s was not consecrated until September 23, 1826. The ceremony was one of the first duties of the third Bishop, Rev. John Inglis (1777–1850), son of Bishop Charles Inglis. The sentence of consecration signed by John, Nova Scotia has been carefully preserved in the St. Ann’s Archives. One reason for the delay was that the second Bishop, Rev. Robert Stanser (1760–1828), was often absent from his diocese and was eventually forced to resign due to ill health.

It’s impossible to do justice to the history of St. Ann’s in a single column. Hopefully, before too long, the complete story of this, the oldest standing church building within the Tantramar region, will be written. There is no more worthy subject than the architectural and ecclesiastical gem that is the St. Ann’s of 2002. Only a very few other Maritime church buildings can claim 185 years of continuous service.

September 22nd 2002, is destined to be a red letter day in the long history of St Ann’s congregation. The anniversary will be marked at the 7 PM service with the rector Rev. Kevin Stockall officiating. The guest preacher will be a former rector Canon Richard McConnell. The choir of the Parish of Rothesay will join the choir of the Parish of Sackville for this service.

Anniversaries should inspire a forward as well as a backward look. At present, historic St.Ann’s is planning to construct a new and much needed Church Hall. With the precedent of the original builders of 1817 and the inspiration of the liberal contributions of money and work of the 1870s in mind, it is to be expected that this project will soon be underway. Preliminary architectural drawings are encouraging, as plans call for a building that will compliment rather than overshadow the old grey church in the wood.

The anniversary spending of the years takes us back to the poem Westcock Hill by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts. It has always been a source of amazement that such an important personality in Canadian literature is so little known or recognized, in the region which had such a profound impact on his work.

A native son and the grandson of Rev. C.F. Wiggins, John Wiggins Fisher (1912–1981), a master of prose in his own right, often commented on this oddity. He once wrote: As a boy Roberts knew this country, knew the anger of the winds and the strength of the tides. He saw them knock and slap down the dykes. [He also knew the marshes] miles upon miles of gossiping green grass, whipped by the winds, seething like foam. Changing colours in the sky tint the cold waters grey, brown and sometimes almost purple. Gentle one minute, cold and calculating the next but, as regular as the clock, the Tantramar River is both fat and lean [From here Roberts] put a song on the lips of his countrymen he was the Father of Canadian Literature, the bard of Tantramar.

Were John Fisher with us today, he would most certainly be calling, yet again, for recognition of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts in Westcock. It is not inconceivable that he might suggest setting aside some space in the proposed St. Ann’s Church Hall as a reminder. Not only might this spotlight Roberts ties to the area; it could be the starting point for a tour of the countryside he immortalized in prose and verse. There are so many ways to mark the spending of the years!