UPDATED MARCH 2, 2018, to include comments from The Nation Mayor François St-Amour, and councillors Marcel Legault and Marie-Noëlle Lanthier.
A candlelight vigil will take place on Sunday evening at St-Bernard Catholic Church in Fournier on Sunday, March 3 from 7 to 8 p.m. Everyone is welcome for the one-hour event, which organizers say will be a very dignified spiritual experience, with one-half hour inside the church, with readings, hymns and silent prayer, with a second half-hour for people to spend time outside the church with their candles or lanterns, leaving when they wish. You are asked to bring a candle with you.
That vigil is taking place since other, new information has come to light about the looming closure of the church.
First, The Nation Municipality councillor Marcel Legault will be bringing forward a motion to rescind the municipality’s earlier resolution to request a heritage designation of the St. Bernard Church.
Second, the Archbishop of the Diocese of Ottawa has made an offer: Remove the heritage designation request and the church will remain open for five more years.
His offer may prove to be irrelevant, if the Nation Municipality follows through with its plan to withdraw its request to have the church declared a heritage building. The motion to rescind its earlier resolution to request that the church be declared a heritage building will be presented at the March 5, 2018 municipal council meeting. (Even though that is not a delegration meeting, the St. Bernard parish will be permitted to speak for 10 minutes as an exception, according to The Nation Municipal Mayor Francois St-Amour.)
According to St-Amour, council approved the heritage designation request but had not considered all of the implications.
“First, I think the St. Bernard Church and the parish should have a five-year opportunity to revive the parish and come up with a plan for the parish and the building,” said St-Amour. His worry is that if the Fournier parish closes and is merged with St-Isidore or any other parish, and the building has been designated a heritage building, the costs of maintaining a heritage building will be transferred to other parishioners.
“I’m not in favour of moving somebody’s debt to someone else,” St-Amour said. “As a council, are we okay putting a fiscal burden on another parish?”
The state and clergy should stay far apart, St-Amour commented.
“I regret the decision, but at the time, we did not know all that was involved,” St-Amour added.
Nonetheless, he says that the lack of consultation or notice to the St-Bernard parish got things off on the wrong foot.
“It was badly done and we need to calm things down. Let’s take the five years and see what can be done,” St-Amour said.
He is aware of a February 9 letter sent by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast to the St. Bernard Parish, in which it is promised that the church will remain open for five years if the heritage designation request is revoked by council.
That letter, signed by Prendergast, says that the offer will remain in effect unless his successors change or cancel the arrangement.
For its part, St-Amour says that the municipality can bring its motion back any time.
“If the archdiocese doesn’t keep faith with the agreement, then the next council can always bring the motion back to the table,” St-Amour said.
“This is not easy for me. I was baptized there, had my First Communion there, was a choir boy there. I think they need time to come up with a plan. They were blindsided by this whole thing,” St-Amour said.
Likewise, Nation councillor Marcel Legault says that even if the resolution is revoked for now, it can be brought back later.
“We can bring it back in one year, two years or five years,” said Legault, adding that the heritage designation is fine, but asked who will pay the additional costs to maintain the building?
Legault says his reason for bringing the motion forward is that people are not aware of all the repercussions of a heritage designation. Legault, too, is aware of the February 9 letter from the archbishop.
Parishioners from St-Isidore are unable to attend services at the church in Fournier, he says, as many of them are older and without transportation and 10 kilometres is far for them to travel. He does not know where construction plans are at for the new church, but says things seem to be on track.
The notice of motion first appeared on a February 5 meeting agenda.
Nation Municipality councillor Marie-Noël Lanthier says she will not support the motion to quell the heritage designation application.
At first, the diocese was saying that St-Bernard was a very ordinary church, Lanthier said. But she believes that experts should determine whether or not it should be designated as a heritage building.
“We don’t have a single heritage building in The Nation and heritage is so important for a community and a municipality. It is to our advantage as a municipality,” Lanthier says.
As far as Lanthier is concerned, the church authority extends to the parish, but the church should not be asking the municipality to withdraw its request for heritage designation.
In the background, building a new church in St-Isidore and closing one, or tearing one down in Fournier serves only to pit one community against another, she says. Lanthier says that the heritage designation is being used as a bargaining chip.
The Archbishop’s letter
In a February 9, 2018 letter sent to the priest and parishioners of St-Bernard parish, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast assured that the St-Bernard Church would stay open for five years from the date that The Nation Municipality and councillors definitively revoke all efforts to assign a heritage designation to the church. The request for a heritage designation, made by the municipality, took place last year.
The Archibishop of the Diocese of Ottawa stated that he had been led to believe that if he could keep the church open for another five years, that would satisfy the community. And that would permit The Nation Municipality to abandon the “necessity” of obtaining a heritage designation for St-Bernard church, he says.
In a lengthy written reply to the Archbishop, dated February 26, the parish has said no to the offer and does not know where the Archbishop got the idea that having the church stay open for five more years would satisfy them.
“We hope you will understand that we cannot accept it nor the conditions that are attached: no reason can possibly justify that our parish be targeted in such a way more than any other of its neighbouring sister parishes and in no way does it deserve to be put in such a situation,” says the letter, signed by Gaston Levac, CAT President, Murielle Bourgon, president of the Heritage Committee and André Laverge, president of the pastoral committee.
The letter asks the Archbishop to allow the parishioners and the municipality to review what a heritage designation entails, even though no one knows yet whether or not such a designation will be granted. And second, the parish is asking for the time to re-examine itself and its future without a time limit of years with or without guarantees on the part of the bishop, with or without heritage designation.
The Archbishop had said in his February 6, 2018 letter that in April 2017, he wrote to the parish asking for a proposal for a structured and realistic approach toward a revitalization plan for its Christian community.
“I am still waiting for some sign on your part to follow up on this proposal,” the Archbishop wrote.
The parish letter of response also refers to “pressure placed on the committee in July 2017 regarding the “possible exhumation of the remains of Father Magnan, which revived the fears of last February and stir(sic) up even more the climate of mistrust towards some people in your immediate entourage.” (Father G. M. Magnan was parish priest from 1885 to his death in 1888). His remains are inside the church crypt.
The letter declares, “St. Isidore has burnt down and will rebuild. St. Bernard existed, exists and should still exist as its neighbours.”
The letter also reminds that “this place ‘Locus iste’ is a holy place, consecrated as such by your predecessors. It is not yours or ours. It has been entrusted to our custody in a shared alliance between us all – a sacred pledge.”
Last year, rumours of the possibility of the church closing were confirmed when parishioners learned that their church would indeed be closed and that they would be asked to attend a new church to be built in St-Isidore, following the 2016 fire which destroyed that church.
At a public meeting which took place in June 2017, Terrence Prendergast told a capacity crowd at the Fournier Community Centre that low attendance and the general decline in religious practice, were taken into consideration prior to the decision. He cited one priest who is responsible for six churches in the Hawkesbury area and another responsible for seven parishes in Vanier.
“We have big buildings we must support and maintain,” Prendergast said at the time, mentioning that in some cases, there was “almost no one” attending services at certain churches.
Prendergast took issue with The Nation Municipality having published a notice of its intention to designate St-Bernard Church as “a property of cultural heritage value or interest” under the Ontario Heritage Act. Prendergast said he felt the heritage designation was a “trap” and asked the church committee to ask the municipal council not to designate the church.
At that meeting, Roxanne Ryan, a parishioner and one of the organizers of the Fournier 150 celebration, said having the church designated as a heritage property wasn’t a new idea and that it had been discussed for years.
André Laverne, who is part of the church pastoral committee, says he feels the announcement to close the church during the year it celebrated its 150th anniversary was “heartless.”
Lavergne said that St-Bernard Church, dating back 150 years, is still in its original state inside. The other churches in the region have been changed over time, but not St-Bernard.
As for the heritage designation, Lavergne said, “There is a process to be followed and not short-circuited.”
If the St-Bernard Church does receive a heritage designation, it will be the first such designation in The Nation Municipality.
Here is a document which was supplied to the St. Bernard Church committee, which is a summary of the building’s heritage value from Michel Prévost, recently retired chief archivist with the University of Ottawa.
L’église Saint-Bernard de Fournier, un joyau du patrimoine religieux franco-ontarien à préserver
par Michel Prévost, D.U., président de la Société d’histoire de l’Outaouais
L’Ontario français possède un riche patrimoine, particulièrement religieux. Parmi les joyaux de ce patrimoine, on trouve l’église Saint-Bernard de Fournier, une paroisse qui vient de célébrer fièrement son 150e anniversaire. La valeur de ce lieu de culte repose sur son patrimoine historique et son patrimoine architectural.
L’imposante église en pierre de style roman de Saint-Bernard est l’une des rares églises de l’Ontario français qui datent du XIXe siècle. De plus, elle s’avère l’une des mieux préservées de l’archidiocèse d’Ottawa. Construite en 1885 et 1886, selon les plans de la firme d’architectes Roy et Poitras de Montréal, l’église de Fournier a échappé aux flammes comme celle de Très-Sainte-Trinité de Rockland ou à la démolition comme celle de Saint-Bernardin. Sa décoration intérieure réalisée par deux peintres-décorateurs de renom date aussi de la fin du XIXe siècle. Plus que centenaire, l’église de Fournier s’avère aussi une des plus anciennes de l’Ontario français. Bref, depuis plus de 135 ans, le bâtiment historique demeure un témoin important de la vie religieuse et culturelle de ses paroissiens. Par surcroît, son haut clocher vient enrichir le paysage rural de l’Est ontarien et sert de repère pour l’ensemble de la population.
À quelques exceptions près, particulièrement la disparation de la chaire, l’église de Saint-Bernard a conservé toute sa décoration intérieure, puisque la plupart des églises de l’archidiocèse d’Ottawa ont été modifiées au fil du temps, particulièrement dans les années 1960 avec Vatican 11. Ce n’est toutefois pas le cas de l’église Saint-Bernard qui a préservé son intégrité, sa grande beauté et ses richesses intérieures. C’est d’ailleurs tout cela qui lui donne sa valeur culturelle et artistique remarquable.
En fait, l’église Saint-Bernard se distingue par plusieurs attributs patrimoniaux, particulièrement par ses peintures et ses fresques réalisées par deux peintres-décorateurs d’églises de très grande réputation, François-Édouard Meloche et Toussaint-Xénofon Renaud. Très prolifique l’architecte Meloche était surnommé “le peintre de la lumière” alors que Renaud a été l’un des décorateurs d’églises le plus productifs de son époque. En effet, il a décoré pendant sa fructueuse carrière, entre 1896 à 1944, quelque 150 lieux de culte au Québec, en Ontario (notamment les églises de Sainte-Anne de Prescott, Curran et Rockland) et aux États-Unis. Suite à des travaux de rénovation, il ne reste plus aucune trace de ses œuvres chez nos voisins du Sud. Heureusement, on peut encore admirer le travail remarquable de Meloche et Renaud dans la voûte et dans le haut de autels des peintures aux couleurs pastel où l’on trouve des motifs floraux et des harpes. D’ailleurs, l’église Saint-Bernard occupe une place unique dans la carrière de ces deux grands artistes-peintres, puisqu’il s’agit en 1896 de la dernière participation de Renaud aux côtés de Meloche.
Le lieu de culte est aussi enjolivé par des pilastres et 14 belles colonnes corinthiennes au fini marbré d’un rouge grenat et par son parquet en bois franc. De plus, le chemin de croix tout comme les bancs en chêne sont d’origines. De splendides verrières qui datent de 1918 et composées de nombreux vitraux et de rosaces aux couleurs multicolores viennent en outre enrichir le magnifique décor de ce bâtiment plus qu’exceptionnel. Enfin, il ne faudrait pas oublier la sacristie avec son plafond en tôle travaillé, ses confessionnaux et son chemin de croix.
Bref, l’église de Saint-Bernard demeure un des plus beaux exemples d’églises rurales de l’Ontario français. Sa valeur patrimoniale s’avère inestimable et sa beauté incontestable. Nous appuyons d’ailleurs notre affirmation par un extrait de l’Inventaire du patrimoine de l’Ontario français, Habiter le pays, publié en 2001, qui affirme: “Avec son presbytère (devenu depuis une résidence privée), son cimetière à l’arrière ainsi que son environnement exceptionnel, l’église de Fournier est sans doute l’une des plus belles des Comtés unis de Prescott et Russell“. Somme toute, l’église Saint-Bernard de Fournier, joyau du patrimoine religieux franco-ontarien, mérite d’être protégée pour les générations à venir.