If the People Want It, The People Will Make It Happen
Rising up from the rubble: the new St. Paul’s Church
There is a story passed down about the official opening of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in 1920.
“It happened to be a rainy, windy day,” says Rick Fougere, the postmaster in my adopted community of Havre Boucher, Nova Scotia. “as they were doing the opening, water was coming into the church, through the roof and down around the windows.”
It was a sign of things to come. St. Paul’s used to be the most distinctive landmark in this coastal village. Its unusual, curved arches and bell tower dominated the sky, a familiar sight to motorists traveling through the area on the Trans-Canada Highway. But, after eighty years of patching, rebuilding and spending of money, the parish was forced to admit the beautiful church could not be fixed.
In the 1940s, the brick church has been faced over with stucco in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the leaks, which were causing the walls and floor joists to rot. In 1981, workers dismantled and rebuilt the bell tower. The job cost about $250,000 but accomplished nothing. More ineffectual repairs followed before the parish called in engineers and contractors to estimate the cost of fixing the church properly.
Experts said it would cost $450,000 to replace the roof, windows and a fifth of the brick facing. Other problems were probably lurking under the stucco, they said. A complete fix would cost much more.
The bad news was laid before the parishioner in July 1995, two years before my wife and I moved here. In a vote held later that year, eighty-two percent voted to dismantle and rebuild, instead of pressing on with more study.
“They were all very much attached to the church,” comments Father Angus MacGillivray, parish priest since 1990. If there was any way of holding onto it, they wanted to do that. But at the same time, they were so frustrated with the building. They said, ‘We can’t be doing this every 10 or 15 years.’”
The parish accepted a bid from designer-builders Chapelstone Developments Inc. of New Brunswick. The dismantling and construction together was estimated to cost about $750,000.
Their task laid out, the people of Havre Boucher shifted into high gear. Individual parishioners pledged more than half a million dollars to be given over five years – almost $1,500 per person on average. In response to an informal, word-of-mouth appeal, former parishioners sent almost $65,000 back home to Havre Boucher. Memorial donations totaled more than $40,000. Bottle drives, variety concerts and other fund-raisers have been so successful, only a tiny fraction of the final cost will have to be borrowed, estimates Rick, whose term as chairman of the building committee ended with the opening of the new church last June. “Strange as it sounds, the weekly collection has actually gone up and pledges are still being honoured,” Rick says.
“One of our parishioners cut firewood on his own land, went around and sold tickets (on it), then presented us with $1,800,” Father MacGillivray says. To raise money, a local historian sold copies of a commemorative booklet, an artist raffled off her painting of the old church, and high school students sold St. Paul’s Parish tee shirts. A local carpenter who had initially voted against replacing the old church volunteered his time and skills to build the altar, tabernacle stand, lectern, baptismal font and other furniture.
With the rest of the parishioners, I watched with interest as the brand new church took shape in the shadow of the old. During construction, we visited the site frequently to watch as first the floor, then the walls, then the brick facing went up.
The new building seats 350, slightly fewer than the old St. Paul’s. With a much lower roof, the new church is easier to heat and maintain. As well, the altar is closer to the people and the presidential chair is up front, reflecting changes in the Church itself since Vatican II, Father MacGillivray explains.
“There’s a bigger emphasis on community worship, that everybody feel a part of worship,” he says, adding that the new layout is stimulating more participation in the liturgy. The old church, with its isolated pockets of people scattered here and there, seemed to encourage an attitude that a relationship with God was a personal matter not shared with others. The new church emphasizes that the community worships together.
“The way the seating is arranged, no one is off by themselves. The congregation is supporting one another in their song and prayers. I can see a difference already,” Father Angus says.
The parish’s roots go back to 1790, to a bare seaside bluff a few hundred feet from my backyard. Here, early settlers attended mass in a small mission chapel that could be reached only by dory. Of these early settlers, a Father Manseau wrote in 1816, “The people of Havre Boucher are showing all the goodwill and unanimity that could be desired in preparing materials for the new chapel. There has not been a single refusal and I am quite surprised in view of their lack of means.”
The same could be said of today’s parishioners. And this is not the first time they have had to rebuild their church. The old St. Paul’s was itself a replacement for Havre Boucher’s first true church, built in 1860, which burned down in 1916.
“It’s the cement of the community,” Father MacGillivray says of the church adding that the people feel they own it in a real way.
A sense of community is important in Havre Boucher. Today residents are fighting to keep their school open. A health centre, Kinsman hall, fire department and other developments are sustained by community effort.
Ï never saw a community that had so many people attending meetings,” says Father MacGillivray, laughing. “They’re not afraid to work for what they want.” He says he’d like to think the people’s faith plays some part in their ability to co-operate on major projects, but admits it’s difficult to say. What is true, through, is that the community and parish are the same thing. The community’s spirit and its religion seem indivisible.
“Their church and their community are one. They will very often call it the HavreBoucher Church rather than St. Paul’s. I don’t think they make any distinction between their parish and their wonderful community.”
Rick Fougere says the people would probably band together to accomplish anything that the majority thought was a good idea, but the church was especially close to their hearts.
“I don’t think as many would have given as much to anything else,” he says, adding that plans to build a new community recreation and meeting centre were immediately put on hold in order to build the church. The much-needed project will be on hold until the church is completely paid for.
Despite the enthusiasm to build the new church, it was hard for people here to finally let go of the old. The building committee was under pressure to save parts of the old to incorporate in the new. Unfortunately, many admired features wouldn’t fit, and had to be sold or used in other ways. For example, the majority of the solid oak pews went to other churches, and the remainder distributed to people in the community through a draw.
In the fund-raising souvenir booklet, former Havre Boucher pastor Father Allan MacDonald describes his attachment to the old St. Paul’s, and his first visit there in 1954. As he and his future housekeeper knelt to pray, the altar rail collapsed to the floor. A screwdriver was enough to repair the damage. Fr. MacDonald write, during this 26 years at St. Paul’s, “I knew that the beautiful church which I loved so dearly was falling down, and that there was nothing we could do to prevent it.”
“It will take more than a screwdriver to build a new church, but please God we shall have a new church, even through the old St. Paul’s will be the dearest to our hearts.”
“Rising Up From Rubble