Thursday, January 23, 2014

St. John Cathedral plans to spend $10 million 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 priorities."

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 necessary.

"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."

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