ARICHAT: The priest overseeing Isle Madame’s Roman Catholic parishes is “looking to the silver lining” in the early days of an effort to preserve Our Lady of Assomption (OLA) Church in Arichat, less than a month after warning a heated public meeting that the 180-year-old house of worship could close if significant repairs do not occur prior to 2018.
Through a letter written to the OLA congregation and at a public meeting held on March 2, Father Doug MacDonald of the Stella Maris Pastoral Unit has warned parishioners that several major upgrades are required for the facility, according to an engineering report conducted in 2014 by A.H. Roy and Associates on all SMPU properties.
While this report was initially sparked by a diocesan investigation as to the suitability of West Arichat’s Immaculate Conception Church to become a pastoral centre and chapel, Fr. MacDonald noted that the report was “shelved for the past two years” after its findings were shared with “relevant parish committee members.”
In January, a 14-day tax sale placed on this West Arichat building, now the Stella Maris Pastoral Centre, triggered a series of events that included a review of all Roman Catholic properties on Isle Madame, unearthing the 2014 engineer’s report and revealing several recommended repairs at the OLA Church, Fr. MacDonald noted. These included the elimination of storm water in the crawl space under the church, the installation of ventilation in the church to assist, among other things, in the prevention of peeling paint, and the formal addressing of the church’s heating system and boiler room.
“Steps were taken to address ventilation, but other immediate repairs remain outstanding for a variety of reasons,” Fr. MacDonald recalled, adding that these delays have now placed the historic proto-cathedral in a precarious position.
“If major repairs and an action plan for other repairs are not completed by year’s end, then it is conceivable access to the historic church will be denied for liability reasons… It is my prayer they can pull this off by 2018, because the status-quo cannot continue.”
Noting that his correspondence to OLA parishioners was “meant to motivate renovations,” Fr. MacDonald is hopeful that the community will take up the challenge to provide the financial aid and human effort to maintain the Arichat church as a fully-functioning house of worship.
“I was delighted by the way OLA parishioners’ received the letters and the constructive meeting we held in Arichat,” Fr. MacDonald told The Reporter.
“Given the positive and respectful response of people to solve this, I am hopeful the OLA Church will remain open for generations to come.”
While he noted that the longtime community group The Friends of Notre Dame has agreed to spearhead the church renovation, the veteran priest said combinations of “help from the community-at-large, people from away, government grants, etc.” are needed to secure the church’s future. Should these efforts fail, St. Joseph’s Church in Petit de Grat would host two Mass services per weekend to accommodate all of Isle Madame’s Roman Catholics.
“People need to decide whether they want this structure to remain open to the public,” said Fr. MacDonald. “If they do, we will work with people to provide tax receipts for donations, and ensure 100 per cent of the donations go to a special building fund, making them tax-free from the diocese… All this depends on the people and what they want to do – it can go either way. I pray we all soon find peace, regardless of the outcome.”
Fr. MacDonald also clarified that “absolutely no discussions” have been held with regards to a previous pastoral plan predating his arrival on Isle Madame, which suggested that St. Joseph’s Church in Petit de Grat would hold Mass services year-round with OLA only open in the summer months.
“To the contrary, I had lofty plans for the two churches in the pastoral unit, otherwise I would have not expanded both church parking lots to accommodate more people [following church closures in West Arichat and D’Escousse],” he recalled. “I remain on course, until parishioners inform me otherwise.”