Photography by Daniel Vaughan
When Lesley Bonisteel was a little girl growing up on her father’s farm north of Trenton, in a rural patch formerly called Johnstown, she wanted to become a pioneer. “The simple way of life has always appealed to me. We did hobby farming here. As a child, I had a pig and a horse and a goat. When I moved back 10 years ago, I got a Jersey cow and named her Buttercup. We were great friends,” she laughed.
“My Dad used to tell us stories about his early years on a farm with no electricity. I was always saying to him, ‘Dad, tell us the story about when you were a little boy. Tell us about the time the butter churn exploded.’ We would hear the same stories over and over again and never tire of them. My father was the kind of guy who would lean on a fence post and chat with neighbours. He took a real interest in people.” Lesley’s Dad, Roy Bonisteel, was an icon in the early days of television and the host of CBC’s long-running Man Alive.
Lesley Bonisteel was born in St. Catharines. “My parents met at a local radio station. My Dad worked at CKTB radio and my Mum wrote commercials.” When Lesley was 10, the Bonisteels moved to Trenton, her father’s hometown. “I first attended a one room schoolhouse in Glen Miller, then on to Batawa and Frankford Public Schools, then Bayside High,” said Lesley. “Instead of college, I got married and had a bunch of kids. I home-schooled all my children.”
Ten years ago, she and husband Brian Weston moved back to the place of her father’s birth and built a home on the 50-acre Bonisteel family property, across the street from the 140-year-old by then vacant Johnstown United Church.
“The church closed in 1972 and sat empty for close to 20 years,” said Lesley. “It was in rough shape, and Dad was approached to see if he might want to keep it standing, and he did but he had no real purpose for it. We spent a while doing renovations, and always had our family Christmas and News Years parties here. When neighbours asked, he would give them the keys and let them use it for Christmas pot luck or for actors to practice there. Dad always loved the old church. He would talk to me and Brian about what to do with it. We decided we would like to buy it, and Dad was thrilled. We started with some spoken word events, and my father did some storytelling of his growing up here based on his book There Was a Time. Andy Thompson did the music to go along with the presentations, and we had full houses. The church has such a special energy that when we started showing movies here, people were so inspired to be friendly that they would share their chips.”
Brian Weston grew up as a teenager in the same area, and was an old friend of the family. He and Lesley share an almost devout love of music. After buying the sorely-in-need-of-repair church, the couple dove into the substantial project of resurrecting the church as a performance venue. What a visually incredible jewel of joyful intimacy it is, the likes of which you will rarely see, particularly in the middle of a pastoral setting – oak floor, soft cushioned seats, flowered vases on tables, chapel ceiling with crystal chandeliers, rising brick fireplace, and artwork along all the walls.
There is something so magical about an old church. “One of the nicest things about this place is it is a legacy of my Dad who passed away four years ago,” said Lesley. “He loved what we started doing here. He said it was now more community than it had ever been. He spent time in it in as a kid, and knew everyone who attended. The quilt hanging on the wall is from the Acme branch of the Women’s Institute, over 100 years old. It is a name quilt, created for a fundraiser for the First World War effort, red and white for the Red Cross. People donated 10 cents to have their name stitched onto it. It has over 600 names, including many generations still in the area which one can recognize on road signs. It’s a heritage piece.”
The Old Church Theatre, as it is now formally called, is a performer’s dream emporium. Whereas eight years ago, Lesley would have to look for artists to perform here, today she gets calls every day from high calibre musicians who want to play in its inspiring atmosphere. In fact, the church is booked well into next year. “Audience members and artists keep saying what a special place we have here, with great sound, so comfortable and intimate (it seats only 60) that people are naturally drawn to be outgoing with each other during shows. I love the variety of acts we stage and how we change the room around depending on the type of show. Every time we see a limitation, we create fun ways around it. We cobble things together like farmers do. Our advantage is we are small and therefore can turn the Old Church Theatre into a warm and intimate gathering place. So friendly. Our regulars love that its ambiance is like a green room with the audience being a part of the whole thing because you are not far away from the stage. I totally love the whole idea of booking people here.”
In-house, Lesley is currently directing a play, part of three one-act plays being staged soon, the second such series to be presented at the Old Church Theatre. In addition, she hosts Open Mic Nite every first and third Wednesday of the month starting at 7:30 p.m. The church is used as a setting for a type of speakers’ corner You-Tube web show called The View from Here. Also, once a month, Cogeco films Live is Where it Lives on location with musical guests. The show is televised on Quinte Cogeco, soon to be expanded to video-on-demand. Even the high walls are an extension of the artist mecca to be found in the heart of the Old Church Theatre. Many beautiful paintings by local artists are regularly on display for admiration and purchase.
Lesley’s hope is more and more people will know of the Old Church Theatre. “We were very busy last winter. On cold days, on some Sunday afternoons, we light the old fireplace. The most amazing musicians come here. I am blown away by the eclectic styles we offer. Our regulars trust we bring in high calibre performers. One time, we had a reading of a local play about ghosts. We set up the long harvest table and during the reading the power went out. We lit candles. So fun, as usual. I would like people to know it is definitely worth coming here to see unique acts, all while making some new friends in a top notch, warm, and cozy entertainment environment.” After a long pause, the elegant and approachable lady who always wanted to be a pioneer looks around the room and then gazes at the noble ceiling, and adds, “My father’s spirit is here all the time. We feel it at every show.”