WEST ARICHAT: The Stella Maris Pastoral Unit, which oversees the remaining Roman Catholic Church operations across Isle Madame, is attempting to reach new agreements on insurance and liability issues regarding three of its properties in Petit de Grat, including a recently-closed parish hall and two athletic fields.

The pastoral unit’s insurance provider ordered the closure of St. Joseph’s Parish Hall on February 23, after the company informed the Catholic organization’s insurance broker of the need to address safety concerns at the hall, particularly in regards to entrances and exits.

According to Fr. Douglas MacDonald, who oversees the pastoral unit’s operations, this “abrupt” third-party closure of the building came three years after an engineering report determined that the hall had several structural, safety and maintenance issues requiring attention. He noted that parishioners directly involved with the hall “were reluctant” to carry out the necessary repairs, as the Diocese of Antigonish was in the final stages of selling off assets to assist in the payment of a multi-million-dollar legal settlement with victims of sexual abuse by diocesan clergy, resulting in local fears that the Petit de Grat building could be sold in this regard.

“After consultation with stakeholders, I indicated that these concerns needed to be resolved within two years,” Fr. MacDonald told The Reporter.

“Over the past 16 months we explored other ownership opportunities. Then a meeting was held in February addressing these concerns, including a lease or sale to an incorporated entity or to the Municipality of the County of Richmond to operate it as a community hall. An additional three months was granted to stakeholders to find solutions and determine what stakeholders wanted to do.”

While the insurance broker’s closure decision leaves the hall unusable for the time being, Fr. MacDonald pointed out that a follow-up meeting on March 12 drove home the need for what he described as “essential renovations,” as well as the action plan demanded by the hall’s insurer to address other engineering concerns over the long term.

“It is my hope that the community will rally together and address these safety concerns, so St. Joseph’s Parish Hall will be safe, and thus meet our community’s needs for years to come,” said Fr. MacDonald.

“Hopefully the hall will re-open soon, but that is completely dependent on whether the ‘essential’ repairs are addressed.”

In the meantime, the pastoral unit is attempting to address an early-February directive from its insurance broker that “only parish-organized events” are permitted on the unit’s two Petit de Grat ball fields, which over several decades have hosted co-ed softball games, Richmond Amateur Baseball Association (RABA) games, provincial baseball championships, minor baseball games, and activities connected to the Petit de Grat Acadian Festival, as well as Les Jeux de l’Acadie.

“I was advised that if I permitted outside groups such as ball teams to use the fields, there was no insurance coverage for participants, spectators or the general public,” Fr. MacDonald explained.

“In the event of an accident, the property owner would be held liable. I also learned that many of the teams using these ball fields are registered societies which did not carry any liability insurance.”

With this in mind, the pastoral unit is hopeful for progress from an agreement reached at a March 5 stakeholders meeting, which determined “that the ball fields would continue to be used by the general public, as long as appropriate insurance, legal measures and other steps were put in place to ensure the safety of players, spectators and the general public,” according to Fr. MacDonald.

“Church properties used by the public must be safe,” the veteran priest insisted.

“When we continue to dialogue with respect, solutions can always be found. I believe in the end, all will be well.”