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The History of the Church
The presence of an identifiable Anglican community in the Antigonish area can be traced back to the 1780’s. After the American War of Independence, Loyalist settlers established themselves along St. George’s Bay at Town Point and Bayfield. The first Anglican chapel was situated at Town Point and, today, the earliest European cemetery in these parts marks the spot of that rustic chapel.
In 1834 Thomas Hill Esq. donated a lot on Church Street in the village of Antigonish to be used as a burial ground for Anglicans. An Anglican Church was built on the site in 1842, but was replaced by 1898 by the present structure. To the best of our knowledge, no photographs or descriptions of the old church have survived. There are even conflicting versions about what happened to the structure itself. Was it destroyed by fire? Was it pulled down, or moved off the site for another purpose? Whatever the case, the Byzantine brass cross above the tabernacle, dedicated to St. Paul’s first rector, belonged to the earlier structure.
Today’s church was built according to the plans of parishioner Gustavus Bernasconi by Antgonish carpenter Allen Gillis and John MacDonald, a local contractor and builder who owned a wood working factory.
Bernasconi (1845-1931), a Swiss-born civil engineer, was a graduate of Zurich Polytechnical College. After immigrating to Canada, Bernasconi entered the employ of the Department of Public Works where he was a one-time manager of the local branch of the Federal Public Works. He retired to Granville Ferry in 1923, where he died 8 years later.
Designing St. Paul’s, Bernasconi obviously drew on a number of available architectural sources. He may, for example, have been inspired by the work of the English-born Maritime architect William Critchlow Harris (1854-1913) whose ‘Gothic Revival’ style St. Paul’s certainly mirrors and who’s work was well known at the time. The exterior lines of St. Paul’s reflect Harris’ ‘Neo-Gothic’ influence more than its interior finish as Harris’ interior woodwork tends to be more refined that St. Paul’s simple oak communion rail, pine pews and pulpit, and spruce grove and wainscoting.
Others have stated that Bernasconi’s ‘cottage style’ church was inspired by the ‘alpine architecture’ of his native Switzerland. This may in part be true, but it is easy enough to see that most of the stylistic features displayed by St. Paul’s are familiar in smaller Maritime churches of similar vintage.
‘Gothic Revival’ or ‘Neo Gothic’ elements in St. Paul’s include the steeply pitched roof, the exposed timber ceiling, the saddle back tower, the pointed steeple, the arched gabled narthex, the lancet windows in both the chancel and nave, and the decorative shingle and iron work outside. Today’s red and grey paint is also faithful to the original design, as is the varnished wood on the inside.
Throughout this region and beyond, Gothic Revival church architects favored asymmetrical design, and most especially ‘off center’ steeples, main entrances, and windows. Thoese innovations were used to great effect, creating, it was felt, new and unexpected perspectives. Originally they were meant as a reaction against the austere, even cold, classical lines found in many earlier church buildings. What is interesting from the point of view of Church architecture is that, more than any other Protestant denomination in this province, Anglicans from 1850 onward, showed a decided preference for the irregular shapes Gothic embellishments entailed. The half-timber detailing and simple stick-work of the interior are part of this overall concept, the basic integrity of which is still intact today.
Edward M. Langille,