At first, the church looks like a centuries old Gothic ruin: the stained glass windows are missing, as are the roof and spire. Left open to the elements, a fine layer of grass covers the floor where the aisle, pews and pulpit would have once been. You’d think you’d stepped into an abandoned church somewhere in Europe, where it not for the palm trees brushing against the soaring, windowless stone arches.
But we’re actually on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, and the English looking church isn’t a ruin: it was simply never completed. It tells a tale of feuding parishioners and devastating storms that saw the builders down tools in 1897, leaving the beautiful church half finished.
We’re in St. George’s Town, the original capital of the old British Overseas Territory of Bermuda. In many peoples’ minds, Bermuda is part of the tropical, Caribbean set, similar perhaps to Barbados or the Bahamas. But Bermuda is much further away, and has its own, slightly peculiar air, mostly because of its location: the nearest landfall is over a thousand kilometres away. The air can be colder than you’d imagine, and harsh winds add to a feeling of isolation that comes from living on a small island surrounded by the North Atlantic in the middle of nowhere.
The first settlers arrived in Bermuda in 1609 completely by accident. The Sea Venture was originally bound for Jamestown, Virginia as part of the Virginia Company’s ‘Third Supply’, transporting 500 settlers to the New World. Caught in a ferocious hurricane, the stricken 300 tonne ship fortuitously spied an island, seeking safety in what would become Bermuda.
St. George’s was established as its capital in 1612, and the first church, St. Peters, was founded almost straight away. Still today, it is the oldest Protestant church in continuous use in the New World. The island’s motto ‘Quo Fata Ferunt’, ‘Whither the Fates carry us’, is quite fitting for a settlement founded by chance.
Another part of what makes Bermuda slightly unusual is that there was no indigenous population on the island. Today, most Bermudans can trace their ancestry back to either the original British settlers, or the slaves they later brought there. There are also highly strict restrictions on non-Bermudans buying property, meaning that much of the island has an insular, closeted feel.
Leave the brightly coloured, monied waterfront of the new capital Hamilton behind, with its Rolex shops, marinas and American off-shore finance offices, and you’ll find small villages still organised in Parishes, the way the English country side was centuries ago. Tiny cottages, painted white or pastel, with neat gardens on quaintly named streets such as Shinbone Alley, Slippery & Old Maid’s Lanes, nestle side by side with village pubs and churches, giving the feeling of walking through a village from the Cotswolds in the 1800s, neatly plucked out and set delicately down on a small island in the middle of the ocean.
By the late 19th century, St. Peter’s was falling apart. Storms had left the venerable old church almost beyond repair. Many parishioners were worried that the extensive work that needed doing would disturb the bodies lying in the graveyard that had succumbed to yellow fever epidemics.
Plans were made drawn up for a new church; the Governor donated land on the site of his former mansion, and stone work began on a hilltop overlooking St.George’s at the end of Blockade Alley.
But a bitter dispute soon arose between the parishioners of St. George’s; some in favour of the new, modern looking church similar to those being built in Victorian Britain, whilst others wanted to spend the money renovating their beloved St. Peter’s.
In 1883, Trinity Church in Hamilton caught fire, and the already scarce money was needed to fund repairs in the new capital. In 1897, with most of the exterior walls and roof already built, the project was put on hold.
In 1925, a fierce tornado descended upon Bermuda, that neatly took off the roof of the unfinished church. According to one parishioner, “It was a remarkable tornado, nothing else was damaged in St. George’s, not even the flowers in the garden adjacent to the Unfinished Church.”
The townsfolk took it as a portentous sign, and gave up working on the church for good. Since then it has been left to the mercy of time and weather. Every now and again, the ruined structure is closed for shoring up repairs, but mostly it is left alone.
The Unfinished Church has become a popular wedding spot of late. “There’s no place on earth quite like it”, explains a local guide, “what remains is positively breathtaking, with soaring arches, a grassy floor, and only Bermuda’s blue sky for a roof.”