Story of Shag Harbour United Baptist Church


United Baptist Church


In 1971, the doors of the United Baptist Church, standing on Chapel Hill in Shag Harbour, were closed and locked, and for the remainder of the decade the building stood quiet and empty. The only thing to enter the building was an occasional stone thrown through one of the side windows, briefly stirring echoes of the building’s past before settling among flakes of peeling paint and drifts of dust.

To the more perceptive (or perhaps more imaginative) observer, the stones’ intrusions to the quiet sobriety of the church recalled those echoes of more active days long past and the events that marked not only the history of a building, but of a community as well. Echoes of the church’s first cornerstones being laid in 1856 and the zeal of those men who constructed the building for a little over £350 drift within the structure. Or perhaps one can hear the discussions among the three trustees appointed to in 1857 to seek out a minister for the church. Or the debates of 1865 that surrounded a vote that allowed the Baptists’ use of the building for a quarter of the year, the Methodists’ use of the building for a quarter of the year, but denied use of the building for a sixth of the year by the Advents’.

One of the loudest echoes would belong to the harried and intense conflict between those Baptists and Methodists of the mid 1870’s who expressed open intolerance to the others manner of Christian worship. The conflict resulted in the closing of the church for two years. The church was not opened again until the new Methodist church was constructed in lower Shag Harbour. Echoes of long ago sermons by former ministers ring throughout the church, with perhaps those by the Rev. Lew Wallace remaining louder than most as he spoke to capacity congregations with an emotional intensity further charged by his wife’s enthusiastic renditions of hymns, “If Your Heart Keeps Right” and “Brighter the Corner Where You Are”.

Echoes drift by of the ghostly boasts made by the congregations of 1916 praising the fortitude of those 33 “believers” who braved the winter weather and ice flows at Shag Harbour’s share to become baptised. There are later echoes of the sermons of Rev. H. H. Phinney, “the singing pastor”, and the storm of 1929 that tore the church’s steeple from its moorings on the roof. The round window that once adorned the steeple now hangs on the far wall in the museum.

Muffled prayers for Shag Harbour soldiers in the World Wars echo throughout the building, which is now a museum. The building was presented to the Chapel Hill Historical Society to preserve the historic building as a museum. The building was given to the Society by the United Baptist Church and with aid of government grants, the Society was able to restore the building, construct an observation tower in the old belfry, and establish a museum of Shag Harbour and Canadian Heritage.

However, there is more to the history of Chapel Hill than that of the United Baptist Church. On the site of the museum stood the first trading post in Western Nova Scotia, a building called “Vieux Logis” (Old House), which is marked on Champlain’s map of 1612. Fishermen from New England fishing around Cape Sable Island used the Old House as a landmark for taking bearings. One particular area of the fishing grounds was called the Old House ground and today is known as the Housing Ground. The Old House was once the home of Abram d’Entremont in 1686. A little less than one hundred years later, the first English settlement was established near the site. The land was divided into lots and from Leire Nickerson in 1856, the Chapel Hill site was purchased for the construction of “The Christian Church”, later the United Baptist Church.

Today the Chapel Hill Museum holds many articles that reflect the people and their lifestyle in a time long since past. In the museum hang portraits of the British Royalty from Queen Victoria to the current Queen Elizabeth II. There are tools and instruments commonplace in a time gone by, as well as furnishings, paintings, and records from the community’s past.

One of the famed wreckwood chairs fashioned from the wood of shipwrecks ranging from the sinking of the luxury liner “Titanic” (1912) to the wreck of the “North Star” (1919) is on display at the museum. The designer and builder of the chair, Gilbert Nickerson, was known as the “Old Chairmaker” to most of the South Shore and was an avid and accomplished area historian. Many of his “Tales from the South Shore” are on display.

Photographs and articles from the life of the late Evelyn Richardson are also included in the museum. Mrs. Richardson, winner of the Governor General’s Award in 1945 for her book “We Keep a Light” ably and distinctively preserved in her books the Shag Harbour and outlying island community as it existed in the early 20th century.

In the museum there are displayed articles from the Sons of Temperance League, including a portrait of E.R. Nickerson who gained distinction among other Shag Harbour citizens for his involvement in both the Sons of Temperance over North America and in the legislation process of the Provincial Government.

Also, at the Chapel Hill Museum, there is an observation tower. From the tower one can see much of Cape Sable Island and the lighthouse on Bon Portage Island which Evelyn and Morrill Richardson  tended from 1930-1965. Their experience as light keepers is the theme of her book “We Keep a Light”. Seal Island can be seen through the western window in the tower and at night five lighthouses are visible: Seal Island Light, Bon Portage Light, Emerald Isle Light, West Head Light, and the Cape Sable Light.

The Chapel Hill Museum is open from June 15 to September 15 and is attended by members of the Shag Harbour Historical Society. There is no admission fee to the museum, but donations are welcome.

Many additions and changes to our archives have been made since our opening in 1981. In 1985, we had our 200th birthday, and due to our volunteers work, we erected a monument to “they that go down in ships”. Work on the building is ongoing to date thanks to the continued effort of our Society volunteers and tremendous support from the community.

Come and visit and experience a bit of Nova Scotia’s past, and at the same time, celebrate the natural beauties of her present and, hopefully, future. Visit the Chapel Hill Museum and observation tower in Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia.

Methodist Church