Here’s the thing about manses: they are owned by the church, not by the people who live in them. The inhabitants are a succession of ministers and their families, with turnover happening every few years. (Though the system isn’t used all that much anymore, because ministers, like the rest of us, want to acquire equity in a home of their own. Many churches have sold off their manses and the minister buys a house for him/herself. That’s not quite what happened with the Queensborough manse, but I’ll get to that in another post.)
In general, churches don’t have a lot of money. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Protestant church, in Canada anyway, that feels it’s doing well financially. While the situation is particularly dire these days (with church attendance way down from what it was as recently as a generation ago), really ’twas ever thus.
And when a church doesn’t feel it has much money to spend, pretty much the last place it wants to spend it on is: the manse. Ergo, renovations and improvements are few and far between. I can remember my mother, Lorna, pining for years for a new kitchen floor to replace the tattered, ancient linoleum that was there when we moved in in ’64. I remember her doing battle with an old wringer washing machine that spewed water all over the floor every time it was used. (My mother deserves a medal.) The decisions on what improvements and repairs (if any) would be done lay with The Manse Committee, a church body that ministers’ wives always tried to be on the good side of. I remember Lorna sitting with gritted teeth through manse-committee meetings at which it was cheerily decided that no, there was no need for anything particular to be done, this year at least. (And her joy when a new chairman came on board who actually was in favour of spending some money. She got her kitchen floor at last. And we got a new washing machine, though I have a feeling my father, Wendell, may have paid for that out of his own pocket.)
Kids, of course, pay no mind to the state of the house in which they live unless it really is falling down around their ears, and the Manse certainly wasn’t that. A bit rough around the edges, sure, but we thought it was a great place. And really, it was. And is.
One good thing about a house that hasn’t been heavily renovated and “improved” over the years is that it also hasn’t been wrecked. Benign neglect can actually be a good thing. When I moved to Montreal I found it amusing that an apartment for rent or a condo for sale would be breathlessly described as “rénové.” I mean, just because it’s had a renovation doesn’t mean it’s a good renovation. Gluing cheap new carpet over a vintage wood floor is a renovation, but how does that make a place better?
So while the interior of the Queensborough manse may be bare-bones (to put it mildly), and while there might be some “finishes” that one would wish gone (I’m thinking of the cheap wood panelling that was installed in the early ’70s while we lived there; we thought it was the ne plus ultra at the time, and it’s still there. And the acoustic ceiling tiles. And some pretty unfortunate wallpaper), they can fairly readily be made gone. And under and behind them will be (we hope) the plaster-covered bones of this beautiful old brick house. Once we’re down to that, the real work begins. And boy will there be a lot of work.
Raymond and I went through the Manse a couple of times before we made the offer to buy it. One of those times, my brother John and my sister, Melanie, were with us. They grew up in that house too, and have very fond memories of it. As we walked into the living room, the three of us stopped and just stared. The curtains! Still the same curtains! All these years later!
Things change slowly in a manse. Especially if the change involves spending money – like, for example, on new curtains.
I am lobbying to keep those curtains, drab and old-fashioned though they are, on the living-room windows. For old times’ sake. Raymond is less than crazy about the idea.
But I like how they remind me of the Ghosts of Manse Committees past.