A redemptory move that touches the heart
Forgive me if I step outside my usual reporter's Invisibility Cloak of objectivity this afternoon. I usually avoid writing opinion pieces on stories I've done, which goes along with my reluctance to sign petitions or take part in protests and marches. A career as a reporter usually necessitates a veneer of objectivity in formal matters of record, no matter what your personal feelings are.
But I don't care this time. Yesterday I wrote a story on Eelco and Ali Boswijk buying St John's Methodist Church, the tall white and red church on Hardy St, listed as a category-two building with the Historic Places Trust. Its congregation, unable to afford its ongoing costs and finding it unsuitable for their needs, put it up for sale in June.
That month I wrote a feature story on the fate of our region's old churches, and met Reverend Alison Molineux in the freezing cold front room of the church's adjacent parsonage, along with some of the rest of the 50-strong congregation. All felt helpless at the fate of the building they loved, but stoic in the decision they had made to sell.
"We're not property managers," Rev Molineux said. Together with similar tales from other ministers across the region, I finished the story feeling extremely pessimistic about the fate of these sad, beautiful old buildings.
Not any more. I am thrilled about this news. Bang in the middle of the Arts Festival, when my blood is running high from evenings of gorgeous song and voice, all I can say is bravo to the Boswijks.
You see, they're not going to knock the buildings off their perches and turn the 3193 square metre site into yet another central city tilt-slab monster. They want to refurbish the church and turn it into a performing arts venue. At 400 seats, it's bigger than both the Theatre Royal and the Nelson School of Music, and its acoustics are sublime. (Settlement is November 30; I hope to God this is not premature.)
I remember sitting on the cold, hard wooden pews to review a show in St John's when Dave Dobbyn played with L A Williams, Ross Burge, and the Dukes on his Acoustic Church Tour in September 2010, and that crusty old rocker's voice - which we're all completely sick of and have heard a billion times before in pubs, rugby grounds, and on Air NZ ads - sounded like it soared sweetly from the heavens above.
When he sang Language in that space I was in tears (though if you've been following my, Anna Pearson's and Sarah Dunn's arts festival blog on nelsonmail.co.nz you'll see this isn't uncommon). I am so looking forward to having that experience again some day.
Like most people, I love old churches. I love the hush of silence when you first walk in, no matter what your religion, and the way your footsteps echo on the wooden floors. I love how voices and music sound in them, and what they represent in the community: hard work, comradeship, support, scones and tea, knitting stalls, primary-school plays, family, history, love.
The list of buildings I despair over grows - whatever concrete mess is being constructed opposite Eelco Boswijk and Mic Dover's other church, the Free House; Rebel Sport in Montgomery Square; the council building, which I only hope lasts long enough so we can one day appreciate its historic lines. I'm sure you can come up with other awful local monuments to economy and expedition, and your own sad list of ones we've already lost.
In fact, here are some more buildings that are on the problem list and need saviours: the 120-year-old Nile St Trinity Presbyterian Church, a Historic Places Trust category-two building, which has rotting floors and walls; Dalton House, the former nurses' home and another Historic Places Trust category-two building that Nelson Marlborough District Health Board intends to rip down; the little marble Catholic church in Takaka.
It seems that more and more often the preservation of these old buildings - the ones with a heart - need someone to step in at the last minute if destruction is to be halted, particularly if tight taxpayer funds are in the mix. But if there are the right people around with the right sense of community spirit, maybe that isn't always a bad thing.