The challenge of change in the Catholic Diocese of Pembroke

Ste Bernadette Church, Bonfield

Photo: Ste Bernadette Church, Bonfield


Bruce Pappin

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

In May 2006, the Catholic parish of Ste Bernadette in the small northern Ontario community of Bonfield celebrated the 100th anniversary of its church. A highlight was the completion of a five-year renovation of the interior, featuring the installation of a magnificent altar that was an almost exact duplicate of the original removed during the 1960s. Deacon Albert Benoît said the restoration “brought the church alive again.” The altar came from the church of St-Louis-de-France in nearby Chiswick, which had been demolished. Its reuse was a bright spot in what has lately been a difficult process for the Diocese of Pembroke and its faithful.

In 2006, the Bishop of Pembroke announced the closure of 10 churches in the diocese, which covers a large area, serving primarily rural communities and small towns. The diocese stretches from Arnprior to outside North Bay, includes a number of communities in Quebec, and extends west as far as Haliburton and south past Bancroft.

Unlike in some communities where church attendance is declining, the Diocese of Pembroke’s problems revolve around shifting demographics and a shortage of clergy. Assigning a priest to a geographically isolated community with only a handful of parishioners is not practical.

A diocesan committee composed of lay people and clergy travelled throughout the diocese, consulting with communities about the disposition of inactive churches, and reported back to the Bishop. The final decision in these matters rests with the Bishop, but the wishes of local parishioners are of primary importance.

St. Gabriel Church, Springtown

Sometimes the strongest voice calling for demolition comes from parishioners. In many cases, fear of inappropriate use leads them to see no other option. The committee found, however, that opinions varied widely from place to place. Some communities, for example, had no problem with their former church being used as a garage.

Another challenge is that, by the time a church has to close, there is often no use for a church building in what has become a sparsely populated and economically depressed community. The reuse options available in urban centres do not exist, and leaving an abandoned building to crumble is not a solution. Usually, by the time a church closes, resources have been scarce for years and the building has deteriorated badly.

In some cases, a building’s obvious heritage value prompts a recommendation for strenuous preservation efforts. A committee has recently been formed to address the needs of St. Gabriel Church in Springtown, Greater Madawaska. A unique heritage asset, St. Gabriel was closed in the 1950s, and the 1854 building has survived unaltered since its last renovation in 1906.

Often, however, where the heritage value is limited, there is no viable option for reuse, and the community has concerns about the degradation of the building’s history through profane use, the only feasible course is that followed in Bonfield and Chiswick, where any movable assets are given new life and the remaining shell is respectfully removed.