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Gym Spotlight

137-Year-Old Gothic Church to Become Climbing Gym

The Church of St. John the Baptist, built in 1884, will soon become New Brunswick, Canada’s largest climbing gym.

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The Church of St. John the Baptist in the coastal province of New Brunswick, Canada, which was closed by the local diocese in 2018, is re-opening early next year as a rock gym, Climb 1884

The church, which will feature 8,000 square feet of climbing surface and house roped routes up to 42 feet high, isn’t the first church that has been transformed into a plastic puller’s paradise. Here in the USA, we have our very own: McDoel Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, which is now the Hoosier Heights rock gym

[Also Read: Leap of Faith: How a Baptist Church Became a Climbing Gym]

That said, Climb 1884, which was constructed in 1884, is certainly one of the oldest buildings to be converted into a rock gym.

Photo: Climb 1884

Though the owners, David and Mary-Gwen Alston, are renovating the building to accommodate climbers, including the installation of a new roof, brickwork, and modern heating, the exquisite stained glass windows from the original church will remain, along with much of the existing woodwork and other Gothic architectural features. Many of the pews will be repurposed as seating areas, while others are being sold to raise funds for the local New Brunswick outdoor access group, Ascent NB.

The Alstons, avid outdoors folk themselves, also operate a zipline adventure park in the area, TimberTop. Prior to purchasing the church, the couple met with both climbers in the community and former members of the church to hear their thoughts and input on the concept.

“We have a soft spot for these churches,” David Alston told Gym Climber over the phone. “My wife and I were married in a beautiful old church in our city. That church was recently torn down after the congregation shrunk and no one could find a reliable alternate use for the space. Now they’re building a set of condos where it used to be. It’s quite sad. If historic churches like these can’t find a purpose, they’ll eventually be torn down.”

For the Alstons, everything happened quite fast. “I was working on this idea of doing a rock climbing gym in a different space for a couple of months before the church became a reality,” Alston said. “On a Friday night, I came to the conclusion that the space I was looking at didn’t have the square footage to make it a legitimate gym. Within an hour, we get this email from our real estate agent that said, ‘Hey check out this church that just went on the market.’ That Monday we checked it out, we bid, and we owned the church Wednesday.”

While there are a handful of small community college rock walls and a roped wall at a nearby military base, until now there has been no dedicated roped climbing gym in New Brunswick.

Climb 1884 will house auto-belays, top rope, lead, and speed climbing walls, to complement the stellar outdoor rock scene in Saint John and the existing local bouldering gym, which Alston plans to partner with for competitions.

“The idea is to have a good mix of climbing for people who just want to get started and for experienced, competitive climbers,” Alston said. “The cool thing about our area is that most of the outdoor climbing is within an hour’s drive. This region is the center of gravity for climbing in the three maritime provinces, but until now there have only been bouldering gyms here.”

Alston said that they plan to use both the ground floor sanctuary space and the basement, as well as the mezzanine, for a variety of walls and training areas, including a MoonBoard, a crack wall, kiddie walls, and free weights. “It’s unclear whether we’ll be able to cut a couple of holes through the ground floor down to the basement and have full-size (15m) speed walls, or do shorter, unofficial 10-meter walls,” Alston added. 

Aside from that, the gym will offer all the standard trappings of a modern rock gym, with yoga classes, instructional courses, a cafe, gear rentals, competitions, after-school programming, and more. 

Climb 1884 will open at 56 Broad Street, Saint John, New Brunswick, in May 2022.