The Stars of St. John’s Church Lunenburg
St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg, which
dates from 1754, is the second oldest protestant church in Canada. The original church design was modified a number of times since its original construction, the most recent
occurring in 1870-71 when its present Gothic Victorian interior was constructed. The Church is a well known landmark
in Nova Scotia, and appears as a backdrop in the 1998
Hollywood Pictures movie Simon Birch. The Church was designated as a National Historic Site in October 1998. Lunenburg itself is a World Heritage Site.
Left: St. John’s Church, Lunenburg, prior to the
fire of October 31, 2001.
Right: The chancel area after the fire. Images courtesy of
Parks Canada and St. John’s .
Disaster struck on the evening of October 31, 2001,
when the Church was destroyed by a fire apparently set as
a Halloween prank. With remarkable fortitude the Church
congregation voted to restore St. John’s to its
original condition prior to the fire, and reconstruction
at the site began almost immediately. Much of the early
effort involved reconstructing the Church exterior, but
by 2004 it was time to contract out work on the interior.
The company selected to restore the original Gothic
artwork was Era Studio in Lunenburg, operated by
Julie-Jayne (JJ) Coolen and her mother Margaret Coolen.
In late May 2004 I began a correspondence with Margaret
Coolen, who had contacted Hugh Couchman, Secretary of CASCA,
for assistance in identifying the pattern of stars that had
originally graced the ceiling in the chancel portion of the
Church. Although there had been many photographs of the Church
interior taken prior to the fire, Margaret did not have
sufficient coverage of the star patterns in order to reproduce them as they had originally appeared. She also noticed that
the distribution of visible stars was not truly random, and
sought the assistance of someone familiar with the
constellation patterns of the night sky.
Margaret and JJ visited my office in late June to loan
me photographic enlargements of portions of the chancel
ceiling, along with a CD of additional images in the
collection of Parks Canada and the Church. The star
patterns were apparently referred to locally as a
“mariner’s sky,” although Margaret
wondered if they might instead relate to the first Advent.
I had previously checked the geographical orientation of
the Church in case the stars represented a scene from the
site itself. I had visited the Church many times prior to
the fire, but had only vague recollections of the chancel
ceiling, and was unaware of any significance to the stars
The images of the ceiling immediately illustrated the
problem faced by Margaret and JJ. Because of the nature of
the stars, which are gilded, and the poor lighting of the
ceiling, only photographs of the eastern ceiling panel
display the full complement of stars placed there, and
some are obscured by a lantern chain. In images covering
adjacent panels, many stars are not sufficiently
illuminated to show up on photographs. The chancel ceiling
itself is similar to a dormer roof. It contains two panels
on each of the north and south faces, one rectangular and
the other quadrilateral, and three eastern panels of
triangular shape, all seven panels forming a rounded
eastern roof to the chancel. The ceiling dates to the
1870-71 renovations, but the stars are not visible in
images of the church interior taken around 1900-10. Parish
records have not revealed further details about their
Left and Right: The chancel stars as they originally
appeared. Images courtesy of Parks Canada and
St. John’s Church.
Like Margaret and JJ, I was initially puzzled by the
star patterns. The distribution is somewhat random, but
includes a non-random component suggestive of constellations.
The star images differ in size in a manner suggesting their
actual brightness distribution in the night sky. Despite my
years of experience operating the planetarium at Laurentian
University, I was just as puzzled as my visitors by what the
star patterns might represent.
After about five or ten minutes of that first meeting
I was able to identify a specific clump of stars on the
eastern panel that seemed familiar. Further checking
revealed the pattern to be the constellation Perseus,
although with a few stars missing and a few extras included.
I was later able to trace out most of the constellation
from the visible stars, although it helped matters to
invert the original black and white images to make the
panel images more like observational finder charts. On my
graphic printouts I sketched the outline pattern of the
constellation as it appears in standard star charts.
Perusal of adjacent fields confirmed the identification
of Perseus on the eastern panel. With a bit of artistic
license I was able to identify many of the constellations
adjoining Perseus: Aries, Camelopardalis, Lynx, Pisces, etc.
The chancel ceiling appeared to represent a standard view
of the night sky, in fact as it would appear through the
ceiling rafters, complete with the loss of thirty degrees
of sky above the horizon to the chancel walls and many
overhead stars to the framework of rafters holding up the
ceiling panels. It bothered me that many of the more
spectacular constellations, such as Orion, Ursa Major, and
Taurus, were not present because of the 30° horizon
cutoff, and that Cassiopeia was missing because its bright
stars lay in the direction of the rafters. The original
star scene was rather bland for a church ceiling.
Left: A negative view of one of the better images of the
eastern panel, showing the original star scene depicted there.
Image courtesy of Parks Canada and St. John’s.
Center: Reid Coolen helps his daughter JJ lay out the new
star pattern on the chancel ceiling. Right: Julie-Jayne Coolen
laying out the new pattern for the stars. Images courtesy of
The major motivation for Margaret’s contact with
an astronomer was the need to produce a new layout for the
ceiling stars that would replicate, as closely as possible,
the original star scene. I therefore spent some time after
my meeting with Margaret and JJ establishing the time and
geographical location of the scene painted on the ceiling
panels. The location of Perseus in the middle of the eastern
panel was a bit of a mystery. In today’s skies the
constellation cannot appear above the eastern horizon as
it did in the eastern panel because it is located only
40° from the north celestial pole. Diurnal motion
always carries Perseus on a path that falls to the north
of due east. My attempts to reproduce the orientation of
the constellation using desktop planetarium software
(Earth Centered Universe, which is distributed to
Department members by its creator, Department technician
and observatory director Dave Lane) failed to match the
appearance of the stars on the chancel ceiling. Even a
reorientation of the ceiling panels did not produce a
match to the star pattern of the ceiling.
Following Margaret’s suggestion of the first
Advent, I set the planetarium software to reproduce the
scene from two thousand years ago, using sunset of the
first Christmas, established by setting the Sun on the
western horizon, as a means of initiating a further
search. Because of my background in writing scripts for
planetarium Christmas Star productions, I initially set
the scene for Bethlehem. Perseus was 10° further
from the north celestial pole in that era, so it did
swing over the eastern horizon each day two thousand
years ago. To my surprise, the sky for sunset of the
first Christmas placed Perseus much as it appeared in
the ceiling star scene, but the orientation was skewed.
A readjustment to the latitude of Lunenburg was all that
was needed to bring the scene into close agreement with
the star pattern facing me from the “finder
chart” I had made for the eastern ceiling panel.
I immediately forwarded the news to Margaret and
JJ about the apparent origin of the star pattern as a
replication of the scene at sunset of the first Christmas,
but it worried me that the stars would not actually be
visible at that time. Margaret’s husband Reid, a
retired church cleric, pointed out the likely
significance of sunset, which marks the end of one day
and the beginning of the next in Jewish tradition. The
star scene replicated on the chancel ceiling of St.
John’s was apparently chosen to mark the beginning
of the first Christmas as seen from Lunenburg. Subsequent
discussions with local historians and with Randall
Brooks, chair of CASCA’s Heritage Committee,
confirmed that deduction.
The nature of the discovery raised many additional
questions. Was the meaning of the original star scene of
the chancel ceiling not known to parishioners? Who had
created the design for the star patterns displayed on the
ceiling? And how was it produced? Randall Brooks helped
answer some of those questions. Star patterns apparently
decorate the domes of many churches, including several
in Europe, eastern U.S., and eastern Canada. Churches
are often oriented such that their chancels lie on the
eastern end, so scenes replicating the first Christmas
include the stars of Perseus in prominent view. Previously
existing layouts for the pattern may have been used
at St. John’s, or the scene may have been created
locally by someone possessing an astronomical background.
Somehow the meaning of the starry ceiling had been
lost over the years.
Left: The restored chancel ceiling, centered on the
eastern panel. Right: Julie-Jayne Coolen and I admire
the new ceiling design. Images courtesy of Margaret Coolen.
It took about a week early in September for me to
generate a new pattern for JJ and Margaret to follow in
replicating the original star scene. A brief evening
visit to Lunenburg established that the chancel end of
the Church actually faces 5° south of east rather
than due east, so I laid out the new pattern based on
the actual Church orientation, using a bit of artistic
license to make the star scene match the original layout
as closely as possible. The original ceiling display had
apparently contained 700 stars (yes, someone counted
them!), so I generated plans that included faint enough
stars to bring the resulting total to that number. JJ
and Margaret Coolen spent the next two and a half weeks
plotting the new star pattern on the newly painted wooden
ceiling, then gilding stars of different sizes to the
planks using a magnitude reference scheme I included
in the plans. The newly renovated chancel ceiling was
completed a few days prior to a press conference held
at St. John’s on October 7 to announce partial
funding for the renovations from American Express.
Whatever feelings I may have felt on my initial
reply to Margaret Coolen’s inquiry about the
Church stars have been long forgotten in the wake of
the overwhelming media response to the story. The
finished chancel ceiling is a spectacular sight thanks
to the meticulous work of JJ Coolen, and will be a
drawing card for Church visitors in years to come.
The original star scene depicted on the ceiling was
almost obscured by the passing of the years, the
fading of the original colour scheme, and the weathering
of the ceiling panels. The newly renovated ceiling with
its rich deep blue background and gilded golden stars is
a striking artistic portrayal of the sunset star scene
that would have been visible through the Church rafters
on the traditional date of the first Christmas. Star
gazers will have no trouble recognizing the familiar
constellations adjacent to Perseus in the night sky.
It has been a tremendous experience to have played
a role in the recovery of a lost portion of St.
John’s Church heritage.
A video from the Discovery Channel airing of the story
in October 2004 can be found here Discovery
Channel Video. The program won the L’Oreal
Excellence in Science Journalism award for its producer.
Scenes from the restored St. John’s Church,
December 2005. Left: The Church chancel, with the
renovated eastern ceiling panel above. Center: The
restored Fisherman’s Window at St. John’.
Right: The restored Church exterior now is identical
to its original appearance.
A view of the restored ceiling panels on the north
side of the chancel (left) and the south side of the