In Saint John, N.B., restoring the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is as much about preserving the local heritage as it is about saving a church.
"It is not just an empty building, it is not just a museum, it is a
place of worship where women and men have been married, baptized their
children, confirmed their youngsters (and) buried their deceased
members," said Saint John Bishop Robert Harris.
"It is not just
preserving a building, it is preserving a heritage and the heritage has
to do with a faith community meeting in this spot, worshipping God in
this spot, bringing their joy and sorrows to God in this spot."
That's why under the guidance of Harris the diocese of Saint John is
establishing a capital campaign committee to raise about $10 million
over the next five years to restore the cathedral. The campaign is set
to launch in early 2014.
"We are hoping to reach out to a fairly broad base of people including
corporations, government and the people," said Harris. "As a building
and a gathering place it is not only obviously appreciated by the
community that worships there but it is also recognized by the larger
community. So we're just hoping that we'll be able to receive support of
a large number of people who are proud of their city and want to keep
the cathedral right there in the midst of it all."
Although the cathedral, located on Waterloo Street just outside the
city's core, has proven to be a resilient structure over the years by
enduring the at times harsh Maritime weather and surviving the Great
Fire of 1877 which devastated much of the city, it is currently in
desperate need of repairs.
"And it has been showing that over the past several years," said Harris.
"Basically the whole outer envelope needs to be looked at (and)
repaired. Then the inside needs to be touched up because with water
infiltration there has been damage inside and it is always hard to know
where the water goes."
Harris stressed that at this moment there is no intention of closing the
diocese's "mother church." Rather, Harris hopes the restoration team
will be able to complete the project in phases, similar to how the
process in restoring St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto and Mary, Queen
of the World Cathedral in Montreal.
"We're going to do the work one step at a time and hopefully we'll be
able to stay open that entire time," he said. "The most urgent thing
will be the roof which we hope will be restored this coming spring, and
then the engineers that are advising us will give us a list of
The diocese is seeking financial support from the province, but has also
requested recognition under the provincial Heritage Conservation Act
for the church, the province's first Roman Catholic cathedral.
"The designation is in process, it's been requested, it's been posted
and so it is out there," said Harris, adding that provincial inspectors
have already visited the cathedral. "They've given us a very positive
evaluation and we're happy to hear them say we would like to have it
designated as a heritage site. In a sense it puts it on the map, it
let's people know this is a heritage site."
Legend has it that the cathedral came to fruition after the local Irish
immigrants sent a message to then vicar general of the diocese of
Halifax Bishop Thomas Connolly, saying if you come we will build your
cathedral. Connolly soon replaced Bishop William Walsh and in 1853 the
cathedral's doors first opened to local Catholics.
Long-time parishioner Betty Hogan, who received her First Communion and
was confirmed at the cathedral, sees this restoration as unquestionably
"It is a beautiful church really (but) right now you question even the
safety of the church because we have problems with water, the roof and
the walls," said Hogan, 77. "A lot of us are behind it but there are
some people who just say, 'Oh, tear it down.' "
But Hogan can be assured rebuilding is the direction the diocese is taking, said Harris.
Harris said that while $10 million sounds like a large figure, it is
only a fraction of the cost of building a new cathedral, which he
estimated would cost at least four times as much. And he reiterates that
this isn't so much about restoring a building as it is about preserving
a heritage of the past, present and future.
"We are not just preserving a building, that wouldn't have extreme
value," he said. "Having a building that dates back to 1853 and is being
continuously kept up by today's community, I think that is a better
symbol. We want to preserve the fact that when future generations arrive
they will be able to look at the building and say our ancestors have
been here since 1853."