Guide to the Church

By Adele Ernstrom, Art Historian

For over a century the Unitarian-Universalist Church of North Hatley has been grounded in the religious and social history of the Eastern Townships. When it originated in 1895, Universalist congregations flourished in Beebe, Brome, Lennoxville, Huntingville and other communities throughout the region.

Universalists rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination in which Christ’s death offered atonement only to the elect. They believed that sin was finite, in other words that it brings its own penalties in the here and now. Universalists could not accept that a merciful God required payment for sin through unimaginable tortures for all eternity.

The vitality and extent of Universalist worship in the Townships had major repercussions for longer established churches in the sense of distancing them from an insistence on hell and damnation. As observed by our minister Rev. Carole Martignacco, the decline in Universalist congregations over the last 75 years or so may well result from Universalism’s success in influencing other denominations.

Another distinguishing aspect of Universalism has been the scope it offered to women’s spiritual leadership. The first woman to be regularly ordained by any denomination in North America was Olivia Brown when she became a Universalist minister in 1863 in Malone, New York, near the Quebec border.

The North Hatley church has been Unitarian-Universalist since these two branches of liberal religion merged in the 1960s.

It was built in 1895, as noted, on land donated by Benjamin LeBaron. The labour was contributed by members of a parish dating back to 1870. Similar at first glance to many Congregational churches of New England in its clapboard construction and crenellated bell tower, the church is unique in the region in centering its choir on the long north wall of the nave. This arrangement with its breadth of pews facing the sanctuary, as against a longitudinal orientation towards an altar at one end, spatially suggests the inclusiveness of the congregation.

The nave’s lofty polygonal vault is secured to the steeply pitched roof of the church one sees from the outside by means of scissors trusses. In this structure, ties cross each other (like scissors) and connect at mid-height to rafters on the opposing side of the roof. The revetment (surfacing) of the ceiling and walls of the church is in planed ash in diagonal formations, with corner blocks marking divisions of the vault and the upper corners of doorways. The excellent acoustic quality of the nave is evident during the frequent concerts presented there.

Beautiful stained glass windows in the sanctuary that memorialize members of the LeBaron family are exceptional throughout the region as examples of Art nouveau design. Their central motif with its crown recalls the Christian promise of victory over death while the spray of foliage it encircles suggests the splendor of nature and, plausibly, our relation to it.

This interior has been ranked by the provincial Ministry of Culture and Communications as “incontournable” (exceptional) in the architectural heritage of Quebec. The church is also listed in the heritage register published by the Village of North Hatley, where the building is part of a zone designated as a heritage site of the Village in 1987.

Adjoining the sanctuary and parallel to its shorter side is the space known as Avery Booth Hall, named in honour of a devoted member of the church who died in 1998. It is used for coffee hours, receptions and meetings. The furnishings include an elegant sofa designed by the painter Edwin Holgate, which was offered to the church by his niece, Donnie Rittenhouse. Also original is the 19th century watercolour, Inside the Cathedral at Ratisbon, by Sibella Harriott, a follower of the English painter Samuel Prout. Behind Avery Booth Hall is a spacious kitchen that is part of the church’s initial structure.

Those parts of the church that did not belong to its original fabric are the outcome of a crisis in the late 1980s when the building’s integrity was compromised by a crumbling stone foundation. Michael Grayson, engineer and church member, participated professionally in the design concept and helped to draw up plans for lifting the structure from its defective foundation and supervised the construction of a new foundation, including the installation of a new full basement.

This work was carried out through the vigorous advocacy of Keith Baxter and support of other members of the congregation. One of these was Joyce Booth, who has been active in the church for almost fifty years. She recalls that members agonized over how access to the basement should be provided. It seemed unacceptable to lose part of Avery Booth Hall (as it became known) for the purpose, and so a structure external to that space was built to house a staircase.

Michael Grayson comments that this is one of the rare cases, among many in the region in which churches have been lifted, in which the rebuilding of a church’s foundations has been done so as to allow for a fully functional lower level. This acquisition of new space, in addition to giving the church a second kitchen, accommodates services during winter when it is less costly to heat the space downstairs.

The space at this level, important for church activities during much of the year, was named for Margaret and Albert Stoddard, Universalists who were mainstays of the North Hatley congregation since 1946. Their son Gordon Stoddard is currently an active member of the church.