Jamie Howison ponders blacksmith nails and old pews
This past Saturday morning I spent a few hours at the church with a little team of carpenters – Dave Newsom, Rob Martens, and Brent Neumann – retrofitting a couple of the old pews to make a space to accommodate a wheelchair. It is something that has been talked about on and off for several years, yet for various reasons it always ended up getting stalled off. Though some had voiced concerns about changing the symmetry of the church’s centre aisle, I think it is fair to say that a big part of the stalling had to do with the very idea of taking a saw to those venerable old pews. In the end, though, Brent Neumann – who is not only skilled with carpentry, but also the All Saints’ parish priest – pressed the project forward. The time had come to give people who use a wheelchair the option of moving from the edges of the church (where there are a couple of makeshift spaces just big enough for a chair) to a space in the centre aisle.
The rule of thumb for carpenters is “measure twice, cut once,” but I think that it on this particular morning it was more like “measure thrice, apply masking tape along the cut line, measure again, breath deep, cut…” Thankfully, as the non-carpenter in our group I was spared the task of making those cuts. My jobs were about fetching things, moving things, making coffee, vacuuming sawdust, and pulling nails. Lots and lots of nails. And therein is the story.
The story I’d received about the pews is that in 1926 when the current All Saints’ building was constructed they didn’t have the funds to purchase oak pews, and so had opted for locally-built pews made from fir boards. Though well constructed, the design was pretty basic… and as anyone who has ever sat in the church can tell you, comfort was not exactly a priority. I was also told that much of the work was done by volunteers, drawn from the original Fort Osborne Barracks located across Broadway from the church, on what is now the site of the Manitoba Legislative building. I’ve since discovered, however, that by 1926 the Barracks had relocated to the site now occupied by the Asper Jewish Community Campus… so much for the soldiers doing the work.
Yet in the midst of taking apart one of the surplus pews that line the outside aisles of the church it all began to come into place. We needed to disassemble a pew to salvage extra materials for the job at hand, and as the non-skilled member of the crew much of that work fell to me. The first third of the pew came apart relatively easily, but then I hit a point where I realized that what I’d simply been taking apart was in fact an extension of the original. The next two thirds of the pew was constructed using a long, single board as the bench, and while the extension quite perfectly matched the original in look, there was a real difference in the actual construction: blacksmith nails. Lots and lots of long, square blacksmith nails, many so brittle that they snapped when I tried to pull them with my hammer. Then it dawned on me; these were the pews from the original wooden All Saints’ Church, built in 1882 right in the middle of what is now Osborne Street. I checked an old photograph of the interior of the original church, and sure enough, there were the pews. And the story about a good deal of the work being done by soldiers from Fort Osborne? It could well be true, for the fort was very much in place on Broadway at the time the church was built.
Clearly a decision had been made to save the pews when the old church had to be demolished, but to do that would require building extensions on to each one of them; a significant undertaking, to say the least.
It was those nails that really caught me, though. I’m going to assume that they may well have been produced locally, by a blacksmith working his trade in what was pretty much a rough frontier town. And then each nail hammered home with care, so as to not split any of the boards. Nail after nail after nail, and there I was almost 135 years later carefully pulling them out so as not to damage those same boards. I felt an interesting kind of a connection to the blacksmith who’d made the nails and to the carpenters who’d hammered them home.
So, kudos to Brent Neumann and the All Saints’ congregation for being prepared to see this new alteration made. I know that many of the people who use a wheelchair – whether on Sundays for worship or when visiting for a wedding or funeral – will appreciate the opportunity to finally be able to sit right in the midst of the congregation.
Funny thing, too, is that anyone who was feeling anxious about retrofitting the old pews should take some solace from the fact that they’d already been altered once, to fit the “new” church!