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Photos courtesy of Aundrea Pittman

Inside a Renovated Church by the Sea

An artist transformed this Newfoundland church into a three-bedroom rental property
BY EMILY LATIMER

April 10, 2024

For the longest time, Greenspond, Newfoundland, was separated from the Rock. In the 1690s, English settlers landed on the island—which lies one kilometre off shore from Bonavista Bay—and lived off the bounty of the sea. Three centuries later, in 1983, a causeway was built, connecting the island community to the mainland. 

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Walk along the two-kilometre long island and you’ll find headstones of Roman Catholic and Protestant parishioners—evidence of torn-down churches. Overlooking the shore, on United Church Hill, is a single-storey grey and white building topped with a steeple and cross.

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Tracey Kelly, a stained glass and driftwood artist who flips homes, spotted the former Greenspond United Church on a real estate website in the fall of 2017. It was de-consecrated in June of that year and put up for sale. Kelly has always dreamed of flipping a church, so she drove an hour south of her home in Gambo on a whim. She had visited Greenspond as a little girl, back when the only way to get there was by boat. “I just thought, I’m going to drive by and see what it does to my heart and my mind, and if I get the flutters,” she says. 

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The doors were locked, so she sought out the town manager, who had the key. Her first reaction? “Wow, it really still is a church,” she says. The pulpit, organ, pews and bibles were all there. “It was as if someone had just walked out from a church service and closed the door.” Immediately she saw promise in the high ceilings, historic charm and high-quality wooden materials that comprised the altar. That flutter was there. Kelly put in an offer right away and, $25,000 later, it was hers. 

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Next came the hard part: sorting through everything. “What was I going to do with 25 pews?” she says. She discovered treasures, like old stained-glass windows from the Methodist church that also once stood on the site. She dismantled the altar, saving the lumber for future projects. “I found five or six cigarette packs under the altar. I’ve determined that there were four or five smokers, a couple tobacco chewers and one who liked chocolate,” she says. 

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At first, Kelly used the 1,600-square-foot church as a cabin, a place to hang out in the summertime and scavenge for driftwood to make into art. But after that first summer, she realized how huge the space really was and, in 2019, decided to renovate it into three housing units: a main suite at the back of the church—equipped with a bedroom, kitchen and laundry, where she could stay—and two small units on either side to rent out, with a bedroom and a bathroom apiece. All three would share a deck offering views of the Atlantic. “I always wanted to own a church and I always wanted to make a tiny home, so it was a win-win,” she says. 

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Kelly did much of the renovation work herself: she gets her handy skills from her mother, a seamstress and crafter, and her father, a mechanic. She stripped the church down to the studs, installed new insulation and put up drywall. Then she brought in local plumbers, electricians and contractors, including her brother, Mark, to tackle the rewiring and plumbing. She looked for ways to repurpose original features and honour the building’s past.

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The result is a functional, modern design with heaps of seaside charm. Kelly’s wooden artwork can be found throughout the three units, alongside church pews and shelving units made out of 16-inch pine boards she found in the basement. The open-concept living room connects to an updated kitchen with wooden accents repurposed from the church. A loft overlooks the former sanctuary, and the church aisle now leads to the front of the house and onto the deck. 

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It was critical for Kelly to make the two tiny-home units functional. She had experience living in a narrow space—a seven-by-14-foot trailer—for four months while she was renovating two remote cabins in Gambo, so she knew what to do. Kelly and her brother worked on the right-side unit first: they placed beds strategically in a lofted nook underneath windows that let in lots of natural light and opted for stand-up showers and mini-fridges. Then, they took all the lessons they learned the first time around and applied them to the left-side unit, which has even better sight lines. 

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In March, after three years of renovations, Kelly listed the converted church for $289,900. It was located an hour away from her house in Gambo, and she didn’t have the time or desire to run it as a rental property. Daily trips down the coast didn’t fit with her newest project, either: renovating another church. This time, it’s a Pentecostal one with a residence attached in Gambo. She lives in it, earning her a reputation for being a church lover. “Now whenever there’s a church for sale, people joke around and send me links to the listing,” she says. “But I think I’m all tapped out on churches.”