A Hidden Gem in Rural Chatham-Kent
In the eastern corner of Chatham-Kent, in the town of Highgate, there is something that probably shouldn’t exist where it is. At first glance it looks like a typical country church. Well, perhaps not typical since it is a round structure with high brick walls, inviting double wooden front doors at the top of a flight of steps, beautiful stained glass and a square cupola on top of the circular roof. Further examination reveals a modern rectangular addition on the west side and a 15’ steel sculpture of a double-bass on the front lawn. What is this place?
The Mary Webb Centre is well known to many CK’ers but a complete unknown to others. In 2010 the local United Church congregation regretfully had to close the doors of the building as a church and it looked like the next thing to come through those doors would be a wrecking ball. This would be a shame for such a historic and an architecturally unique building and a handful of local people from diverse backgrounds felt the same way.
This group wondered if people might pay to see music concerts presented in the expansive main hall with its inclined floor, three sections of curved pews with perfect sightlines and fantastic acoustics and awesome stained glass dome. Maybe downstairs community events could be held and in the 6 alcoves around the room art could be displayed. Heck, what about art classes, quilt shows, lectures, card tournaments, yoga and Pilates and more that could take place in the building?
The idea of this group from 13 years ago had a solid foundation and with very hard work by them and many volunteers since, it has made The Mary Webb Centre a resounding success. Key words are “volunteers” and “hard work” since a building built in 1898, that burned to the ground in 1917 and was rebuilt in 1918, is not designed for Juno Award winning performers to take to the stage again and again. Or for 250 people to move easily in and out and up and down stairs – or be able to use two tiny water closets.
Grants, donations and fundraising sees ongoing repairs and improvements made annually, and recently the addition of a new wing to provide accessibility to all and modern washrooms for the filled concert hall audience. It remains a 100% volunteer run operation which is quite astounding with the amount of activity that occurs there. 12-15 top music concerts a year that span music genres and have included big Canadian names such as Jim Cuddy, The Ennis Sisters, Steven Page, Molly Johnson, Murray McLachlan, Sarah Slean, Jimmy and Heather Rankin, Ian Thomas, Valdy, and even Glass Tiger!
The large lower level hall is a kaleidoscope of colours with art on all the walls from local and regional artists and becomes a very socially active bar during the sold out concerts. Weekly art classes and music jam sessions see the hall bustling and the parking lot full of cars.
Most visitors, including the musicians who drive from big cities to small town Chatham-Kent scratch their heads when they walk into the building. How does a state of the art concert hall, beautiful art gallery and inviting community hall exist in a town of 400 people? It’s a result of a crazy idea, a lot of hard work, prudent management and passionate volunteers.
It’s worth a trip just down the road here in Chatham-Kent – take a tour, view, buy art or catch a show. Support this vibrant venue to keep those doors open, lights on and music live! And tell some friends – it is indeed a gem and it shouldn’t be hidden.