THE HISTORY OF
ST. NICHOLAS ANGLICAN CHURCH
Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia
A brief essay on the history of the Parish of Sackville, Nova Scotia with a particular
focus on St. Nicholas Church, Hammonds Plains
by The Reverend Randy D. Townsend January 18, 1999
Halifax was founded in 1749. It had an excellent sea port backed by a very large and enclosed basin. The community could easily be protected with batteries being erected on the many islands and necks of land that fronted the harbour. The settlement area was shadowed by a fortress on Citadel Hill. The port was ideal to assist Britain’s motive of maintaining and securing its presence and protection of the new world. The town flourished and grew with the increasing trade and military as the harbour became a common port of call for the fleets coming and going between Europe and the colonies. Although the French made no direct attacks on this British town it was continuously plagued by skirmishes with the native Micmac. In an effort to curb the Micmacs from coming to town and also to assure that no French attacks could be made from inland a barracks called Fort Sackville (named in honour of Lionel Sackville, first Duke of Dorset) was established at the end of the Bedford Basin.
A road soon passed from this barracks to the town of Windsor, a port and fortification at the end of Minas Basin at the mouths of the Avon and St. Croix rivers. the population of Halifax was rapidly growing and many people sought new ground to toil for substance. Many people settled in the area of Fort Sackville and beyond on lands along the road to Windsor. the population grew rapidly in this area. The need to have a place for Christian worship was definitely in place. The majority of settlers being Loyalist immigrants or of British origin the predominant denomination was Anglican. the founding of an Anglican congregation would be in keeping with the idea of maintaining sound religious principles and respect for civil authority as it had only been a few years since the predominantly Loyalist and British Nova Scotian government had enacted the Act for the Establishment of Religious Public Worship in this Province, and for Suppressing of Property. This act, on the heels of the Act established the CHurch of England in Nova Scotia, was to fix liturgy as Anglican, tolerate dissenters with some freedom of religion, and to ban all popish priests and worship.
A Robinson family (Loyalists) settled in Sackville arriving from Cornwallis and brought with them materials to build a church. Records of land grants show 200 acres on the Windsor Road being conveyed to a Mr. Jack Robinson in 1785. The date of construction of the first church in Sackville is unknown. It has been speculated that it may have been a early as 1790 or it may have been as late as 1805. Seeing that the census of that area in the late 1700s reported numerous families and that a Mr. John Robinson is buried in the cemetery and his son Francis, by 1821 was noted as an active member of the congregation supports the theory of the earlier date of construction. This earlier date is also supported by the vestry book with a report from the minutes of 1830 that states:
We the undersigned, Minister, Church Wardens and Parishioners of the Parish of Sackville do hereby certify that the part and parcel of land on which the present church has been erected, and on which the former church had been builded, had been regularly conveyed to the said parish more than forty years ago as a site whereon to erect such a church.
Other inconclusive evidence may be found in a Society for the Propagation of the Gospel record from 1806 that cites correspondence from the Bishop Inglis that states that a small convenient church with a considerable glebe has existed in the parish for which the Bishop was requesting the appointment of a Society missionary. Older members of the parish tell of family stories that recollect the existence of two churches on the site previous to the existing building. there is an anomaly in that Bishop Inglis in his own diary often speaks of passing through Sackville, on his way to Windsor, but does not mention the parish or church until an entry in 1807. one thing for sure is that the current building was erected after the previous one had burnt down in the sight of parishioners in 1828. The current building was consecrated on November 18, 1830 by the Right Reverend John Inglis, Bishop of Nova Scotia. There is evidence from an article in the Acadian Recorder of December 15, 1928 that there was some opposition to the rebuilding of the church in Sackville:
For What purpose was the church to be rebuilt? Was it to be left he asked, as the old one had been for several years entirely without a minister, unless one happened to come along in a great while, and then one half of the parishioners not get notice?…Until I see money fairly counted for, and some probability of the parish getting a minister, if the church is rebuilt, I in common with many others, would withhold my mite.
The date not being exactly known the Parish of Sackville was founded, although its boundaries were set out by Royal declaration in 1804 to include all areas from, known today as, Birch Cove to Grand Lake across to Mount Uniacke on to Tantallon and then back to Birch Cove. Such a vast area was to be serviced by only one priest from the mother church of St. John the Evangelist. Settlements grew in these surrounding areas and along with the people came commerce and institutions including the village church. Within decades there were churches of the parish in Hammonds Plains, BeaverBank, Bedford, and Waverley, and services being held in homes in three other villages. Congregations grew and division of the parish ensued. The area of Bedford to Waverley was set aside as a parish in 1912 and at a later date divided into two self determining parishes. The congregation of the mother church of St. John the Evangelist grew beyond the capacity of the church building, which is now the oldest standing structure in Sackville honoured in 1998 by a designation from the heritage society. In 1976 a group of parishioners from St. John formed a new parish in Sackville known as St. Francis by the Lakes. In December of 1997 the Bishop of Nova Scotia approved a trial restructuring of the parish for the three remaining congregations of St. John the Evangelist in Sackville, St. Nicholas in Hammonds Plains, and the Church of the Good Shepherd in BeaverBank. This trial structure, by request of the members of St. John to be a self determining parish of its own, is such that each of the three congregations are functioning as an independent parish. In December of 1999, after review, a new structure may be canonized with each congregation being self-determining parishes therefore ending the era of the multi-point parish of Sackville. In just over two centuries the parish of Sackville has been reshaped from being a single point charge with a vast area within its parish bounds, to being the largest geographically and numerically in the diocese, to return again to a single point charge but with much smaller bounds.
The records of the parish and those of the diocese offer numerous interesting facts, stories, and anecdotes of this parish, history and people. It would take many words to note or retell all of these in this essay – a project that may be revived at a later date. Turning to focus on what was known as the smallest congregation and church, St. Nicholas in Hammonds Plains, here is an offering of detail of its own.
The growth of the outlying areas of Halifax was astounding for those days and areas like Hammonds Plains, situated on the cross road to St. Margaret’s Bay, became thriving villages. This area saw its residents gain their livelihood from farming and cooper mills. In its historical hay day Hammonds Plains and the immediately surrounding communities were home to seventeen cooper mills. The people of this area saw their need for a church building as services were being held on lawns and in homes when the rector of Sackville, the Rev. Archibald Gray, made regular journeys over to Hammonds Plains beginning around 1839. In 1842 the Anglican congregation took it upon themselves to build the first church in Hammonds Plains which was a little church known as St. John. This church built in the heart of the community was consecrated in the following year on May 28 by Bishop John Inglis. Bishop Inglis wrote of his visit to the church:
I drove to Hammonds Plains, in the Mission of Sackville, fourteen miles, where I consecrated a neat little church. It was crowded by one hundred and twenty persons, and nearly half as many more were compelled to remain without, at the doors and windows. I gladly preached and endeavoured fully and plainly to encourage all in their duty to God, and to His church, and to their souls. This little church, like that at Douglas, has led to the forming of a little flock, more numerous than ever hoped for when the undertaking was commenced. Its completion is a credit to the missionary the Rev. A. Gray, and those who have zealously cooperated with him. Several of the people of colour, who are settled a few miles from the church attend, but the greater portion of them call themselves Baptist. This was the first Episcopal visit to Hammonds Plains whither I hope, ere long, to have a second call.
Disaster struck when the little church of St. John was destroyed by fire in 1888. As they were zealous people with a driving force behind them in their rector, Father William Ellis, they built themselves a new structure over the following two year period. Services began in the new structure in 1890 and it was consecrated the church of St. Nicholas in 1891 by the Bishop of Maine during his visit to Nova Scotia between June 14 and 17 since the Bishop of Nova Scotia was ill at the time. It was also at this service that long time member W.A. Schmidt was inducted as a lay reader. This church that they built is the one which still proudly stands today.
The ministry to the early congregations of St. John and later St. Nicholas was not the greatest even at its best. Short lived stays by rectors, then missionaries sponsored by the SPG, within the vast parish of Sackville was not conducive to good pastoral care in the Hammonds Plains area. We must also keep in mind the travelling time and the fact that a majority of the parishioners lived within the area of the mother church in Sackville. The church in Hammonds Plains saw many services conducted by laity and by visiting clergy. This kind of ministry, as well as the loss due to the fire of 1888, could be the reason for the lack of records and historical accounts of the congregations of early years. A big change occurred in the early 1900s when the parish of Sackville was divided and the parish of Bedford was formed. This lightened the load of the Sackville rector as he would have less of a territory to cover and fewer churches to service. Shortly after this change in parish structure came the appointment of the Reverend Arthur Tyers as rector. This was a windfall to the parish and especially to the outlying congregations. The Rev. Tyers’ rectorship was the longest in the history of the parish, twenty-six years, probably because of his unwavering faithfulness and his sheer stamina.
It was during the Rev. Tyers’ term of office that we start to see a growth in St. Nicholas and the keeping of detailed records. The Rev. Tyers’ records shows us that at his first service at St. Nicholas on March 30, 1919 at 3:00 p.m., and the first of continual regular services, there were 35 present with an offering of $2.49. We have to respect the people of that day since most journeyed several miles by foot and only a few by horse to attend church. For this reason there was often low attendance or no service at all. In January 1921 the Rev. Tyers tells us in his remarks in the vestry book that he was “late, heavy walking, no service, failed to reach” and the 11 congregation members who did make it to the church had to return home without having being preached to but they did make their offering of 59 cents.
Regular Sunday services seem to be making headway in Hammonds Plains and attendance was averaging 30 to 45 people. In 1925 a substantial increase was seen, perhaps it was the lean years after the war bringing the people to God’s house, and several times that year the vestry book had to be marked “full” attendance as so many were there to make an accurate count impossible. the rapid appearance of the automobile made it easier for more to attend church and also made it easier for the rector to get from one church to the others. Occurrences beyond our control have and always will affect the attendance as was the case on May 8, 1926 only 11 attended due to the whooping cough epidemic in the community and there were only 18 women and children at the service of October 26, 1947 as all the men were off fighting forest fires. The weather has always played a part in attendance and it showed on days when there was heavy rain or snow and sometimes services had to be cancelled. As avid a walker as the Rev. Tyers was the service of Nov. 27, 1932 was cancelled because he could not get his car to start in the heavy rains. Though the worst weather stretch had to have been in 1951 as no services were held for the month of January due to the roads being blocked.
The congregation of Hammonds Plains always have been charitable people as they seemed to give of themselves to help many causes. records show on several occasions the giving of collections to such as widows and orphans, the Bible Society, and the people of Springhill after their mine disaster. Collections were always made available in covering shortages for the Hospital Chaplains, Home Missions, and other Diocesan appeals. Monetary concerns always seemed to plague this church and parish throughout all of its history. the parish lost its main source of funding after the English government withdrew its support of the SPG. Volunteerism as a source of funding took a long time to become a viable and stable means of financial support. Several vestry or council meetings were given to discussion of the rector’s salary of which St. Nicholas contributed about $50.00 per year in the early 1900s climbing to $100.00 in 1920 and then to $532.00 in 1957. This seems all to small in today’s terms especially knowing that the Rev. Tyers never took a vacation until 1937 and just for that year and not again until his retirement after the second world war. Several times the vestry or council looked for ways of easing the financial burden. The envelope system which was introduced to the parish in 1890, to replace the pew rental fee, was not tried in St. Nicholas until 1913 but was abandoned two years later and did not become a permanent method of collection until 1942.
The cost of maintaing the St. Nicholas building did not seem to be very high but neither was its income. Repairs to the church in 1906 forced the vestry to withdraw $100 from its savings account. Operating expenses were such as the payment of $1.25 per day to Mr. James Melvin for clearing up the graveyard back in 1917 and the $15 per year payment approved in 1939 to hire a sexton (Douglas Eisenhauer for many years) to light the wood fire and ring the bell each Sunday. We have to weigh these small expenses against the average annual income of $35.00 in the 1890s, $120.00 in the 1920s, to a high of $1600.00 in the 1950s.
The big financial blow came in the 1950s when the parish instituted its obligation of paying the total rector’s stipend and therefore went to a system of levy against each congregation within the parish. St. Nicholas was assessed to pay approximately $532.00 per year of the stipend and 1/6 of the other parish expenses of $1040.00 or $173.00 per year as well as having to pay the diocesan apportionment of $94.00 per year. The Sewing cCircle came to the rescue and bailed the church out as they did so many times in the past such as their payment of $100.00 towards the rector’s stipend in 1947. This Sewing Circle, which was formed in 1925 separating from the mother group which was founded almost a century earlier, seemed to have a knack for raising money as it always seemed to have more money in the bank at year’s end than did the church. Today the Sewing Circle still raises a large amount of funds for the church mostly by its participation in the ABC (Anglican, Baptist, Catholic) bazaar, a Hammonds Plains institution of 23 years.
Records, being as they were, never gave any insight into the life of the Sunday School at St. Nicholas. The only mention in the minutes was in 1948 where it was reported that there were 12 pupils and 2 teachers. We know from the older members of this community that the Sunday School was an intricate part of the church and community. The enrollment has fluctuated from lows of a handful to as high as fifty or more children at times. Other things that seem to pass by the records books were the social events hosted by the church. Many church suppers, teas, bake and craft sales have been held by various church groups over the last century. Though one thing mentioned in a financial statement was the purchase of goods for the church picnic of 1937 and it is interesting to note what was bought. We should all have pleasure in knowing that those attending enjoyed corned beef and ham along with tea, chocolates, peanuts, Doublemint gum, and yes we must not forget those Marguerite cigars.
The physical structure of the little church on the road’s edge has changed very little over its century long life even though its surroundings have greatly changed. Only a few things of any apparent consequence have been done to change the face of St. Nicholas. the addition of the belfry in 1937 was thanks to the donation of long time members Mr. and Mrs. W.A. Schmidt. The picket fence which surrounded the church and graveyard was replaced several times but was finally removed int he 1950s with the upgrading of the Hammonds Plains Road. A big change for long time members was the purchase of a new wood stove in 1940 but this was topped off by the pouring of the basement floor in 1942 and the eventual purchase of the first furnace in 1949. The interior saw some changes in 1955 when the church was closed with no Sunday services for two weeks so that the redecorating could be completed. Further interior work which brought it ti its current state was completed in 1978. Recent years have seen the completion of the landscaping in the cemetery, the application of vinyl siding on the exterior of the church, installation of an indoor composting toilet, and the erection of a free standing sign.
The one thing that did not seem to change much until recent years was the names of those who attended St. Nicholas and held offices within its vestry or council. Several of the family names that have always seemed to appear are: Eisenhauer, Schmidt, Haverstock, Romans, Wright, Harris, Johnson and Langille. The hierarchy of the community can be traced by noting the names of the people that constantly reappeared holding offices in the church (some spanning four decades): H.A. Schmidt, Clifford Eisenhauer, Samuel Eisenhauer, Earl Haverstock, Weilder Haverstock, and Owen Eisenhauer.
In the last decade the community of Hammonds Plains has been claimed to be the fastest growing community in Nova Scotia. The proliferation of suburban housing developments has been beyond anyone’s imagination. The population has exploded and there is no end in sight to the increasing numbers of new residents. The quaint little congregation and church of St. Nicholas is to be little no more. Most Sundays during the past three years the attendance could be called “full” as it would take a shoe horn to squeeze any more into the 14 short pews. The congregation is now comprised of young families who have recently moved into the area and most of the old family names can no longer be found on the congregational list. The congregation now faces the challenge of meeting the ministry needs of the rapidly growing community and the need for larger and more modern facilities.
Most definitely St. Nicholas has not changed from being the warm, loving, little church on Hammonds Plains Road that has nurtured the faith of all who have or ever will don its doors. Now they move on into their own future to write a new chapter of unique history as the carry on in the proclamation of the good news, the mission of the Church, as the body of Christ in their place and time.
* * *
A New Beginning at Westwood Hills
With a lack of modern conveniences and parking, our historic little church on Hammonds Plains Road could not accommodate the physical needs of the growing congregation, especially those with young families. By the late 1990s, it was self-evident that a new St Nicholas church building would be needed, sooner rather than later.
Through faith and dedication, the leadership of then Priest-in Charge, The Reverend Arthur Nash, and generous Diocesan support, the first phase of our new building was completed in February, 2004. This new site in Westwood Hills, set among nature and a growing residential neighbourhood, was God’s answer to our prayers.
While it was sad to leave the old church, our new building represents another major milestone in St Nicholas’ growth in ministry and outreach. In keeping with the church’s heritage, some of the original furnishings have been incorporated into the new building, proudly displayed and used in our worship services.
In June 2004, Reverend Nash retired from full-time ministry after 43 years of service in the Anglican Church. Fortunately, Chaplain Donald Lawton, Mission to Seafarers, Halifax, who resided in the area, was available to lead us during the summer months, until a new rector was selected by Bishop Hiltz.
In September 2004, The Reverend Jane Reid was appointed to lead St Nicholas and with a subsequent Diocesan “Growth in Ministry” grant, she commenced full-time ministry in May 2005. With Jane’s guidance, Diocesan support and God’s will, we look forward to planning Phase II of St Nicholas Church in the not-too-distant future.