Performance spaces such as the Gower Street United Church create inclusive environments for the province’s most emotive music.
The ringing of handbells, the singing of hymns and the wailing of electric guitars are all sounds that could be associated with a certain downtown St. John’s church.
Listening to punk music in the basement of a place of worship isn’t what most people would expect to do on a Saturday night. At the Gower Street United Church, punk is embraced with open arms.
“Music has always played an important role at Gower,” said Douglas Dunsmore, the church’s music director. “Of course, music has played a different role … decade by decade. Gower has always been a church to maintain some of the music of the past because it’s important, but to also embrace new ideas.”
Dunsmore says he doesn’t mind the prevalence of “heavier” genres like punk and metal being played in the building’s performance spaces, despite assumptions people may have about members of the church.
“There’s only two kinds of music: there’s music done well, and music done badly.”
Although the Gower Street United Church has always used music for its own religious practices, a recent contract with MusicNL brought in an extra revenue stream.
Since 2022, local musicians have been able to book different areas of the church for shows. MusicNL’s Manizheh Darestani agrees with Dunsmore when she says Gower Street United has the perfect acoustics for music.
“We just wanted to make a place where people would have a great time . . . It doesn’t matter what they’re gonna play, as long as it doesn’t break our rules.”
“For me, punk is political. It’s about challenging cultural norms, societal structures, structures of oppression.”– Krys Burton
MusicNL set up an office in the building because of its accessibility. The organization’s views also align with the church’s goals of inclusion, with a heavy focus on the LGBTQ community.
The result of this collaboration wasn’t only extra money for those involved but also a safe space for expression, Dunsmore says.
For years, venues within the St. John’s punk scene had reputations of being “seedy bars somewhere,” says Krys Burton, who plays bass in a self-proclaimed punk band called Frigg.
“You know, a lot of these bars were just crawling with predators, and there just wasn’t a place where you could be safe.”
Now, the musician says, things are changing.
Burton admits she’s not the stereotypical image of punk – with a soft star-patterned sweater and pinkish eyeshadow – but she knows the scene well after going to punk shows since being a teenager.
In recent years, Burton says a much more inclusive community of punk bands and listeners has been cultivated thanks to people with open minds. No longer should people feel like outsiders to a subculture that is already seen as on the outside.
“For me, punk is political. It’s about challenging cultural norms, societal structures, structures of oppression,” Burton said. “While it hasn’t always been super inclusive, over the years, we’ve kind of created this – our scene – to be a more diverse space.”
The involvement of a church in this subculture was questionable to Burton at first, but it turned out to be a step in the right direction – a clean building with great acoustics and open spaces, paired with a group of like-minded people.
Serving the local community is a priority for the Gower Street United Church, Dunsmore says. He says it aims to function as a community church, meaning nobody has to be a member to take advantage of the events they host.
“Anything that is good for the community, more or less, the church tries to say ‘yes.’”
On Feb. 25, an event called Punk Rock Prom was held at the church. The bill included six local bands who performed their heaviest, energy-filled songs to an audience open to people of all ages.
Burton manned the door during the show, and recalls the amount of excited children with their families showing up to mosh and enjoy the music.
With a glowing joy, she said, “It was super wholesome to have a fun show where anybody could go.”
The key to a musical community thriving is putting marginalized people in charge, Burton says. The bassist noticed a lot more “femmes” leading bands lately, which she says is empowering in a genre which has been a “boy’s club” for so long.
Madison Ryan is an award-winning fiction writer and a student journalist. While she isn’t writing, she’s likely listening to or reading about music. She believes there is great power in all art forms.