Returning home

JOHN SWARTZ, Special to The Packet & Times

As you pass the entrance to the Sugarbush development on Horseshoe Valley Road and head up the hill, just at the brow is a little white building.

Perhaps you've never paid any attention to it, but people living in the area have probably noticed a change in the building over the past year. It doesn't look abandoned anymore.

It was, and still is, known as the Coulson Church. Built in 1881, it hasn't been used since 1959, except for two occasions.

"It was my great-grandfather (John Walker) that donated the land and helped build the church," said Ian Walker. "Our barn was built in 1880 and the builders of the barn were Beard and Buchanan, so I guess, likely, my (great)-grandfather got them to oversee the building of the church. It's built on barn timbers. I could see that when I was fixing the threshold."

Yes, he's been doing some work on it. So has his brother, Neil.

Three years ago, the Walkers heard the United Church was going to sell it and many other small country churches that are no longer in use and, with sisters Janice and Anne, reacquired the property.

"We've undertaken to preserve it," Ian Walker said.

"We've been working away at it. There's a couple of windows that were broken. We fixed them. On the front porch of the church, there's a concrete wall. It was broken off for a while. I rebuilt it. The ditch is right there. If you fall off the wall, you're in the ditch."

He believes a snow plow broke the wall. Decades ago, some of the pews were stolen. He built new ones to match those that remained.

"We've got the inside painted up now and we're going to try and paint the outside this year sometime."

They reopened the church last October in time for a 130th-anniversary party.

"All the old people that ever went to that church as kids came out," Ian Walker said.

The church changed denominations a few times over the years, so the Walkers attended a different church as children, but they know the history and Neil gave a bit of it in a speech at the anniversary party.

"One of the things that he remembered and I remember as well, because our house was just up the road from there, (is) we could hear them singing in the church. Neil and I were always romping around out there, fighting or something, and mother would be saying, 'Keep quiet. If you can hear them, they can hear you. So, Ian, leave him alone,'" Ian Walker laughed.

At that party, Anne Walker sang some of her songs. Saturday at 7 p.m., she'll be performing more of her music at the church.

"Because it's kind of a homecoming concert, I'm trying to bring out a lot of the songs I wrote about the community," Anne Walker said.

She came to attention as a contestant at the recent Mariposa Folk Festival audition concert at Aladdin Banquet Hall. She didn't make the cut in a year with virtually every act being worthy of inclusion. She's starting to revive a career in music she put aside 20 years ago to raise a family.

"When I was in school, I was in the band at Park Street (Collegiate Institute). I played trombone, but I really didn't pick up the guitar until after I left. I wasn't a singer then," she said.

While at school in Toronto, she would go to open-mike nights at various clubs, and one of those occasions led to her first professional gig.

"I went to an open-mike night at Free Times Cafe on College Street. I was very inexperienced and I wasn't used to using amplification and there was only one mike. There was no mike on the guitar, so I pushed the mike away and I just sang," she recalled. "Judy Perly (the club owner) was very impressed and booked me for my first professional gig. It was never that easy again."

Except for one other occasion. A trip to Ireland in 1990 and a folk festival presented an opportunity.

"There was a little town called Ballyshannon and, at that time, they had a song contest. I was travelling without an instrument, so I borrowed a guitar and sang a song and I ended up winning the contest. Because I was from Canada, they had a special take-home cup made for me because they have a cup that is usually returned the following year," she said.

This led to her second gig - without even trying.

"I really wasn't intending to return, but in the spring of 1991, I received a phone call saying, 'I hope you are planning to come, because we put you on the bill and you're on the poster.' So I quickly made plans to return to Ireland that year to perform."

Unable to perform as much after that, she still recorded a CD in 1995 that Tony Quarrington produced and another (Labyrinth) in 2008.

"I've got more than enough for another CD already," she said.

She hopes to do more concerts at the Coulson Church and bring in other artists to perform, too.

"There are some limitations. For example, I'm renting an outhouse for this event," she said.

Tickets are $10 and have been selling well. Anne Walker recommends calling 647-385-2951 to get them, rather than trying at the door for a possibly sold-out show.

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