Recent news out of Isle Madame that the Stella Maris Pastoral Unit will close the historic Catholic church in Arichat, unless significant repairs are undertaken, has angered many people, for many good reasons.
In a letter to members of the pastoral unit and during a contentious public meeting on March 2 in Arichat, Father Doug MacDonald warned that several major upgrades are required for the facility, according to an engineering report conducted in 2014 by A.H. Roy and Associates.
In January, a 14-day municipal tax sale placed on the Stella Maris Pastoral Centre in West Arichat triggered a series of events that included a review of all Catholic properties on Isle Madame, unearthing the 2014 engineer’s report and revealing several recommended repairs to Our Lady of Assomption Church in Arichat. These included the elimination of storm water in the crawl space under the church, the installation of proper ventilation, and improvements to the heating system and boiler room.
Father MacDonald said the ventilation was addressed but other immediate repairs were not and these delays have put the 180-year-old building in a precarious position. If major repairs are not started and an action plan is not completed by year’s end, it is conceivable the church could be closed and St. Joseph’s Church in Petit de Grat will host two Mass services per weekend to accommodate all of Isle Madame’s Catholics by the beginning of 2018.
It was explained that this restructuring is part of the effort by the Diocese of Antigonish to raise money after it financially compensated victims of sexual abuse at the hands of parish priests around the diocese. But yet again, the same communities affected by this abuse and its concealment, must also lose the very structures and properties they built and maintained for decades. That does not seem at all fair or just.
Although Father MacDonald described the response at the public meetings and in the community as “positive,” those at that same public meeting and in the community would disagree since many people are angry that the diocese would even consider closing a building with so much spiritual and historical significance to so many.
Built in 1837, Notre Dame de l’Assomption Church in Arichat signaled the emergence of Arichat as one of the most significant ports in Nova Scotia, as well as the resurgence of the largely Acadian population of Isle Madame which helped to finance, construct and maintain the Cathedral. This church was completed approximately 80 years after the Deportation of the Acadians, and its name alone is a clear declaration of the unwavering faith and defiance of those early parishioners. It goes without saying that this building is culturally significant and of tremendous national historic value.
There are many who believe that this latest development is part of a long-term plan by the Diocese of Antigonish to close the historic church and divest itself of the structure. The fact the engineering report was conducted in 2014, and the diocese proposed temporarily closing it three years ago are proof that plans for the closure of the church have been ongoing for some time.
Father MacDonald’s claim that there was no long term agenda to close the church because the parking lot in Arichat was redesigned holds no water. The fact is, the parking lot was made slightly larger after the glebe house was closed and demolished, one of several items on the diocesan closure list for Isle Madame which also included Immaculate Conception Church in West Arichat, St. Hyacinth’s Church in D’Escousse, and now St. Joseph’s Parish Hall in Petit de Grat.
The more convincing argument is that the proposed closure of the Arichat church back in 2014 was delayed to have the time to divest the above-mentioned properties, and buy time for the diocese to mount another effort at finally closing the church.
There are also many who take issue with Father MacDonald’s assertion that the ultimate fate of the church is up to the community, considering that it will be the diocese which could decide to close it, and it was the diocese which proposed keeping it open only during the summer months back in 2014. It is also the diocese which is refusing to consult or meet with the community since Father MacDonald alone has been put in charge of this process.
Within the community and the region, there is staunch opposition at the prospect of closing this church. Even those living away, with roots in Isle Madame, have demonstrated their fierce opposition to this potential closure.
While the community group Friends of Notre Dame has agreed to spearhead the renovation and remain optimistic they can reach these goals, they have the daunting and unenviable task of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and organizing the labour needed to undertake these repairs. Since this must be started in a mere nine months, many would find this an almost impossible task designed to fail.
There is no doubt the diocese has had plans for some time to close this historic structure and wash its hands of it, when in fact, it should be preserving, maintaining and celebrating one of the oldest wooden Catholic churches in Canada.
The Catholics and residents of Isle Madame have been the subject of a disproportionate amount of attention from the diocese, despite the fact it has some of the richest history and deepest devotion of any area in the diocese. It appears this is not a factor in the decision-making taking place far removed from the affected communities, and once again, the church is victimizing the very people they are supposed to watch over.
If this church closes, it will not be because of a lack of support from the community, it will be because the Catholic Church, once again, abandoned its flock.