Born Again

By  |  April 16, 2016
Solemnity, Rodney, Mississippi (2016), by Ashleigh Coleman Solemnity, Rodney, Mississippi (2016), by Ashleigh Coleman

First, eight feet of clay had to settle to the bottom of the pond on Main Street in Abita Springs, Louisiana.

Thick with sludgy green water and mud, the pond was a rundown neighbor to the white bungalow next door. But Pastor Jerel Keene, whose Louisiana Church congregation uses the bungalow as an office, envisioned a mission for the land the pond occupied, so he hired someone to dump red clay into the water and waited four years for it to settle like cement. He planted grass to reclaim the earth it became.

For years, Keene had been searching for a new church to accommodate the eighteen families making up his Southern Baptist congregation. He wanted a building he could grow into: He wanted a place that could hold crowds, that he could wire for radio broadcast, and where he could install a prominent baptistery for dunking the born-again. Keene, who lives about four hours away in the Kisatchie National Forest, has a bit of cowboy about him. He’s a horseman who was convinced he would start a church in the Montana foothills, “but people told me the bears don’t need saving,” he says. He talks in and operates on grand pronouncements, so he gave God an ultimatum—either he’d find a building to house his followers, or he’d leave the state. Keene looked at decrepit buildings throughout the Mississippi Delta, all unsalvageable. He tried to contain his search to the South, but the Internet led him elsewhere—to the craggy shores of Canada’s Atlantic coast. “When this building came up in Nova Scotia,” he says, “I was like, ‘Wow, now that would make a statement.’”

The listing he saw was for a church, deconsecrated but grand. Daniel and Kimberley Reagan buy, restore, and then act as brokers to sell structures like this through their company TimberhArt Woodworks, dismantling old maritime timber-frame buildings and repurposing them, usually as homes. In this case, if the deal went through, they’d be keeping a church a church—selling the All Saints Anglican Church in tiny Granville Centre to Keene. They invited him to come visit. 

When Keene’s plane landed in Nova Scotia in 2009, he faced a misting rain. “They questioned me at the airport. . . . I’m from Louisiana, and we come from a long line of ’shine runners. Keep your mouth shut and you don’t say nothing.” The next morning he headed west into the Annapolis Valley, the province’s richest farmland, guided by the Reagans. Keene knew that he would take All Saints home when he stepped up into the building’s attic and bell tower. “I had a flashlight, and I was looking at these beams, like, ‘They’re really gonna sell me this church?’”

  

Nova Scotia is connected so strongly to its colonial roots (Nova Scotia means New Scotland) that it was considered all but sacred land for American Loyalists who fled to the region throughout the Revolutionary War. With them came Bishop Charles Inglis, who was driven out of New York City by fear and sent to Canada to strengthen the Church of England’s public standing. When Inglis got to Nova Scotia, he started a notable church-building campaign in his diocese. These churches would serve to remind everyone within eyesight that “our fervent Prayers should ascend to the Almighty for the Preservation and Prosperity of our Sovereign,” as he expressed his Loyalist views in a sermon in 1780. They were bulwarks against republicanism and revolution. They were a method of imperial control. They were symbols of faith in God and country.  

An Anglican church in the era of Inglis took inspiration from a pattern book published by the architect James Gibbs. These were the guidelines for the denomination’s buildings: large windows to the east, towers and spires to the west; a deep chancel and altar stood at the center-front, which pews would cascade from, toward the doors. Begun in 1814, All Saints was ensconced in this “Englishness,” a smaller cousin to some of the province’s larger churches.  Peter Coffman, an architectural historian and professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote in a paper about All Saints: “If Reverend Keene realized the pains Inglis took to make sure his churches didn’t look Baptist, I can’t help but wonder if he might want his money back.” In Inglis’s time, Baptists were worshipping in houses and fields, as well as in churches; to Baptists, faith was not so strongly connected to the building in which they met to pray. Coffman watched as All Saints was deconstructed. “When [Keene] looks at this [building] and says, ‘This is wonderful, this is just the right church for us,’” Coffman told me, “he’s showing, frankly, a historical ignorance which I think is regrettable.” 

By the time Keene stepped foot in Nova Scotia at all, the church’s religious consequence had nearly faded out—a decade prior, the valley’s depleted and aging population began merging congregations out of necessity. All Saints was deconsecrated by the province’s Anglican diocese in 2005. (Even before the church was officially sold, TimberhArt had begun to tear it down—regardless of who bought it, if anyone did, the cost of maintenance was too high for the diocese to keep it in operation.) Faith has been on the wane in Nova Scotia for years. As the province’s rural population has migrated into cities, some church buildings have sold for as little as $1.27 (the original price paid in 1837). It’s not only the rural-urban divide that has led to the dwindling of worshippers—the Anglican church here has fielded accusations of abuse and misconduct. One minister blames hockey games on Sundays for drawing away the crowd. What All Saints parishioners bemoaned is the sadness of an empty church. It is the dying, not the building itself, that holds much of the emotion.

 

More than a hundred years before All Saints was built, Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley was the heartland of Acadie—home to the Acadians, descendants of French colonists who would be expelled by the British and eventually form the basis of Louisiana’s Cajun culture. It was Acadian innovation that drained nearby marshes through a dike system, creating the valley’s rich farmland that acted as Loyalist bait. In his epic poem about Acadian expulsion, Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted strong Acadian architecture such as “the peasants of Normandy built in the reign of the Henries.”

Poking around the All Saints Anglican Church was like “opening up a history book from the 1800s,” says Kimberley Reagan. TimberhArt chipped away at the plaster covering oak and hemlock beams, which they found engraved with Roman numerals, a kind of by-the-numbers instruction manual carved by timberwrights to aid in construction. After looking at the beams, they figured the wood used to build the church was refashioned and upcycled from a previous structure—that it was even older than the cornerstone dated 1814. There were also vertical strips of birch bark installed as an air barrier against hurricanes, an ancient Tyvek along the seams. TimberhArt power-washed the frame and debugged it with gas. They repaired a structural insecurity, which had bent but not broken with age, by splicing into it wood of the same type and vintage from another building.

In its sale to the South, All Saints followed the path of expelled Acadians—Pastor Keene’s wife, Amy, is even the descendent of Acadian refuge seekers. “But it’s like sending John Wilkes Booth memorabilia to the descendents of Abraham Lincoln,” says Coffman. The religious dissent that Inglis once saw as a clear sign of republicanism had become the force giving the building permission to live. Baptists saved All Saints. It was reborn. “The natural progression, if you think about it,” says Keene. “If they started hammering that Bible, pretty soon they’d realize that there’s only one priest and his name was Jesus.”

Nova Scotians have a reputation, in Canada, for being welcoming, but when Keene was in Granville Centre, he didn’t meet the Reverend Canon Ken Vaughan, rector of the parish of Annapolis and the church official who oversaw the church’s deconsecration. This, Keene says, was “because [the sale of the church] wasn’t a big deal yet.” But some community members soon felt that a bastion of their community was being sold to the highest bidder—it would cost $300,000 to purchase the church and move it across the continent. The aggrievement was exacerbated when Rev. Vaughan erroneously told the community that the church was going to replace one destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. (Vaughan declined an interview, saying: “I am wondering now why we would want to reopen all of that again. The pain of it here was and continues in living memory to be significant.”) 

In Nova Scotia, there is near-constant debate surrounding the future of its oldest buildings. As one of the first settlements in North America, the province is home to architecture that has stood longer than Canada has been a country. So, whenever a building is torn down or moved, panic rises about history being lost. 

“I feel like I have been here before,” wrote Ryan Scranton, a historian with the Annapolis Heritage Society, in a five-part blog series about All Saints. “Standing on the side of the road in Granville Centre and watching as an important heritage building is torn to the ground. Shaking my head as another piece of our heritage landscape is torn from the map.” The comments below were scornful, as in: “This great evil is the work of the Anglican hierarchy. The church deserves the extinction towards which it is rushing.” The Annapolis Heritage Society proposed to buy the church from the parish, saying it would put it to use and preserve it, but its offer was ignored. 

 

Keene’s initial desire, to move All Saints fully intact by water passage and arrange a grand arrival, was nixed. “I’m always a day late and a dollar short,” he says. “I thought we’d put it . . . on a barge and bring it in. It’d be huge, awesome.” Instead, All Saints celebrated its two-hundredth birthday in pieces. After it took a long trip on a lowboy truck, Keene placed the church from the Nova Scotia countryside on his Louisiana clay. 

“This is probably the most stable church in Louisiana,” Keene said one day last December, sitting in jeans and a plaid shirt inside that church in Abita Springs. Keene is goateed and has to duck in the office bungalow—on the Friday that I visited, he was wearing work pants and dusty boots. Later that night, for a hayride around town, he wore a black cowboy hat. The Northeastern religious aesthetic is stereotypically one of buttoned-up fathers walking through gray mist to worship and forgive in formal settings. Theirs is a faith not of shouted affirmations, but of staid contemplation. “But this is the South. We are about Jesus down here,” said Keene, his voice trailing off between the now-exposed beams that line the slate blue and white clapboard walls of the rebuilt church. 

In his entire career, Keene can count on three fingers the number of times it has rained on a day he has preached. But on that Sunday last December, there was a whipping wind and dark clouds swirled above the spire of the church. Strong coffee was served from a percolator in the back, its intensity eased by powdered milk. “We’re Baptists—the building is not the people,” Keene told me. 

In its travels, the shell of All Saints has acted as a vessel for a view of faith and worship—that the building isn’t as important as the ritual—both spouted and ignored by Baptists and Anglicans alike. “Yes, we all could have worshipped in a barn,” says Peter Coffman. “But the fact is they didn’t, and they didn’t because the act of worship was considered to be important.” As he asserts in his paper, “In Granville Centre, the building might be empty of ritual, but it would remain full of meaning and historical echoes. In Abita Springs, it’s a novelty and an imposter.”

Abita Springs is quiet and in some places divine, with oak trees branching like a tunnel over the streets, dotted with twinkling Christmas lights. During that December sermon, Keene spoke of being saved, of embracing change that can only happen on the interior when someone—or something—is born again. “Nothing changes when we are saved,” Keene said. “But inside, all is changed. He is saved.” On a Sunday in Abita Springs, there is a farmer’s market in the downtown, crowded around a bandstand. On Main Street, there is Church.


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Lyndsie Bourgon is a student in the MLitt Environmental History program at the University of St Andrews. She calls Calgary, Alberta, home, and her work has appeared in the Believer, the Guardian, Hazlitt, and Maisonneuve.