Church. And state. This week, we present a tale as twisted and perplexing as one could find. A small congregation, or parish, which supports St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church in Fournier. The church is “in the black”, apparently, but the diocese made its wishes known last year: it wanted to close the church. It was a bit of a stretch for this handful of parishioners to deal with the news, having had no advance warning. They were kind of busy, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the church, organizing events and publishing a book.
But life goes on. In the meantime, The Nation Municipality passed a resolution asking for heritage designation of the church under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The archdiocese of Ottawa, to which St. Bernard parish belongs, was not pleased. There had been no consultation, no permission asked.
And for the better part of last year, members of St. Bernard parish say that the diocese was pressing to exhume the remains of Father Magnan, a former parish priest who is buried in the church crypt. Even the most optimistic among you will likely detect that it certainly looks like the pieces are being put in place for the closure of St. Bernard Church.
Enter the St-Isidore parish, just 10 kilometres down the road. The beautiful church in that community was destroyed by fire mid-2016 and parishioners are being encouraged to rebuild, the idea being that the small number of St. Bernard parishioners will be merged with the St-Isidore parish. And all will attend a brand new church, following the probable demolition of the St. Bernard Church.
One cannot deny the attachments that people feel to their church community. But as church attendance falters in rural communities, one wonders what will happen to the beautiful, historic edifices built as churches, housing unique art, furnishings, windows and woodwork — often the best in the region? Do churches really belong to the diocese or over-arching religious organizations? Or should diocesan and other organizations be doing what could be a generous and true act by working with the descendants of the people in the communities who have donated, paid and so often over the years, worked in and for these churches to sustain them?
But the saga picked up in early February, when a February 5 notice of motion appeared in The Nation Municipality meeting agenda. The motion (not included in the online meeting agenda) is apparently one which would revoke The Nation’s earlier request for heritage designation for the church. The Archbishop of Ottawa, Terrence Prendergast, wrote to St. Bernard parish just four days later, saying that if The Nation Municipality would revoke “definitivement” its heritage designation request, the St. Bernard Church could stay open for another five years (unless that was changed or cancelled by his successor.)
The parish turned down the offer and sent a lengthy rebuttal to all of the points in the archbishop’s letter. But on March 5, The Nation revoked its motion.
It is all pretty strange timing, don’t you think?
On the practical side, it seems to make little sense in what should be a time of austerity for all faiths, that a new church would be built when one nearby will be torn down, without so much as an evaluation of its historic, if any, worth. What would be the harm in finding out? The Nation mayor is worried that if the St. Bernard parish and the St-Isidore parish merge, the extra costs of sustaining a heritage building will fall on St-Isidore parishioners, who will then have two churches to maintain. Unless the heritage designation might also be a threat to the building of a new church in St-Isidore. Perhaps the two have nothing to do with each other. But it sure looks that way.
One can understand that The Nation wants out of this unholy war. But it is apalling that our local heritage is so fragile.
Yes, The Nation can bring its resolution back on the table any time to once again request heritage designation.
But it feels like the right thing to do would be to find out, now, whether or not the church has any historic value and is worth becoming the first heritage building to be designated as such in The Nation Municipality.
During times like this, it is hard to know where to place one’s faith.
By Louise Sproule
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