Workers have been busy with the restoration of historic Our Lady of Assumption Church in Windsor, Ont., throughout the pandemic. The scaffolding was raised along the east wall of the church to prepare for phase two renovations. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of Assumption Parish/Owen Wolter

Restoration of Windsor’s Assumption Church continues through pandemic

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • October 2, 2020

WINDSOR, Ont. -- A tour through the labyrinth of the attic of the more than century-and-a-half-old Our Lady of Assumption Church shows just how extensive and painstaking is the remediation work for the historic building, a Canadian landmark.

Catwalks and temporary narrow floorboards carry workers precariously over the insulation-clad vaulted sides of the church separated by steep crevices descending dozens of feet into the darkness below.

Here, among the squared timber and wooden dowels of the original early 19th-century built structure, crews are extracting insulation and using industrial vacuums to suck up loose plaster from between the lathes, or narrow wooden slabs connected to joists, supporting the church’s ceiling.

“They have to make it whistle clean,” says Paul Mullins, a local lawyer who has been overseeing a major fundraising effort to restore the church, the centrepiece of Canada’s oldest parish west of Montreal.

The work is part of the second phase in the multi-year revitalization of a building that in November 2014 had be closed after falling into severe disrepair. Some early fundraising efforts to repair the church failed, leaving the future of the church in doubt, before the latest efforts took hold and work began last year.

With phase one work completed last year — including a new roof, heating system and asbestos removal — interior work has been underway over the past several months or throughout most of the COVID-19 pandemic. The entire east side of the church has been cordoned off with white plastic sheeting. Stations of the Cross have been removed. Pews are in storage. A priceless pulpit is tightly wrapped for protection. The entire east wall restoration will cost $1.25 million.

After the external ceiling is stripped, several applications of a liquid epoxy-like material is sprayed into the exposed lathes, which reattaches and reinforces the plaster. While a worker in the attic applies this liquid a worker on a scaffold below the ceiling wipes away any moisture that has seeped through the cracks.

Besides restoring the plaster, the painted interior walls that have been damaged by water leaks are also being restored. The faded or washed out patterns are being replicated from undamaged areas with painters using a colour pallet and template, then repainting through “almost a colour-by-number process,” Mullins said.

Once this phase of the work is done this fall, the parish expects to begin work on the west side and centre aisles walls and ceilings, each coating an additional $1.25 million.

While work goes on, the parish coninues to hold Masses at the church, though with reduced numbers to accomodate both the COVID-19 restrictions and the scaffolding on the East side of the church. 

The church has the funds to get the east side section finished and to begin work on the next section, Mullins says. To ensure work doesn’t go over budget there is a construction management contract with the firm doing the work, Windsor-based Pupatello & Sons Ltd., which provides schedule flexibility based on the cash on hand.

The church has had several large donations of late and is seeking more. But it also hopes to tap into new federal COVID-related stimulus funding to help complete the extensive project.

Beyond the second phase — or interior re-plastering and painting — is the final exterior brick and masonry work, a rebuild of the Sacristy and the restoration of the stained-glass windows. The total renovation work will likely come in close to $20 million.

Mullins says people across Canada may be interested in contributing to the restoration because of the church’s national significance. (It has applied to be recognized as a national historic site.)

Its age alone is almost unique in Canada with the parish established in 1728, though the current church was built in the next century. The parish also has a shared history with Indigenous peoples as it was built on Huron lands as an original mission by the “Black robe” Jesuit Fathers.

“There are very few institutions in all of Canada that will have an opportunity to celebrate a tricentennial (2028) and so we are working to get this project complete before then and to be able to deal with that very important happening in the history of Canada,” Mullins says.

Donations can be made through the Assumption Parish website (assumptionparish.ca) or Canada Helps (www.canadahelps.org).

(NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that Masses continue to be held at Assumption during the restoration.)

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