Our Lady of Assumption Church, circa 1950, has been closed pending restoration since 2014. Photo courtesy Diocese of London

Windsor's Our Lady of Assumption parish celebrating 250 years of service

By  Ron Stang, Catholic Register Special
  • April 16, 2017

WINDSOR, Ont. – The struggles of old age have taken a toll on Our Lady of Assumption parish, but that isn’t going to stop the celebration of its 250th birthday this year.

Our Lady of Assumption holds the distinction of being the oldest continuing operating parish in Canada west of Quebec. The church holds iconic status in southwestern Ontario due to its history, architecture and transcendence from a Catholic house of worship to a widely-embraced community institution. For example, high profile funerals for significant residents like former senator Paul Martin Sr. and former Chrysler Canada president Yves Landry, have been held there.

Since November 2014, however, the massive Assumption Church has been closed. The building has deteriorated and requires as much as $10 million in repairs. Among other things, it needs exterior wall reinforcement, masonry, roof work and upgrades to the electrical and mechanical systems.

Local efforts to keep the church open continued for years and became a trying saga. A couple of high-profile fundraising efforts failed. In one case, the Diocese of London questioned the legitimacy of the potential donor. An earlier professional fundraising campaign collapsed in 2012 after an audit showed only $500,000 of $2.6 million in donations had gone to the church. The diocese fired the firm.

The Diocese of London then decided to close the church, arguing this would keep the structure in better shape than if it continued to be used on a daily basis.

Nelson Couto, spokesman for the diocese, said the diocese is still committed to the church’s revitalization. He called Assumption an institution “that we prize dearly.”

He said a legitimate benefactor would not be turned away. “If there were someone perhaps on the occasion of the 250th anniversary, if they came forward, we would then have the ability to look anew at restoration and rebuilding.”

The church’s adjacent Rosary Chapel, which was fully repaired in the 1990s, continues to be open and Mass is celebrated daily.

After Assumption Church’s closure, the parish took up new quarters in what was Holy Name of Mary Church, itself an architectural gem, if somewhat younger, located just several blocks away.

Assumption parish dates to the earliest French settlers, who built a settlement in Detroit and on the southern shore of the Detroit River, which is now Windsor.

Originally, in 1728, Assumption was a Jesuit mission for the Huron Indians. About 50 years later, some 60 French families sought a parish of their own, so Assumption parish was created and served both communities. The canonical founding was Oct. 3, 1767.

assumption 250 webAn 1800s painting of Our Lady of Assumption, with the view of Detroit. (Photo courtesy Diocese of London)

The first timber-built church building opened in 1787. The present brick church dates from 1845 with the original rectangular building serving as the present church’s nave.

Meanwhile, the church was transferred to Toronto’s Basilian Fathers and the church’s French character evolved into English as Windsor became a dominant Anglophone community.

An interesting note is that Assumption in certain ways is a mirror image of Detroit’s Sainte-Anne-de-Détroit, located almost directly across the river, and which is the second oldest continuing operating U.S. Catholic parish. University of Windsor historian Guillaume Teasdale said the two churches have had a strong relationship.

“On one side in Detroit you had priests from France, and on this side you had priests from Quebec,” he said. “And they were collaborating in many ways across the border.”

That synergy continues to this day. Assumption’s present pastor, Fr. Maurice Restivo, for example, served at Ste. Anne’s. The relationship between the two churches will be celebrated here in October with an anniversary Mass with Bishop Ronald Fabbro and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Dabrowski of the Diocese of London.

Despite Assumption’s closure — and the inclusion of three other parishes in the reconstituted Assumption parish as a result of changing demographics and the decline in priests — the historical significance of Assumption this year is being widely celebrated.

The parish is holding several key events.

One already took place, honouring parishioners on March 17 from the former St. Patrick’s parish, one of the four congregations now making up Assumption. Two other constituent parishes will also be honoured with a Mass and celebration, Blessed Sacrament (June 18) and Holy Name of Mary (Sept. 12).

The closed Assumption Church will be reopened briefly on Aug. 13 and 15 for the patronal feast. Finally, for the 250th anniversary, a high-profile Mass will be celebrated Oct. 1 in the present active church building (former Holy Name of Mary).

For Restivo, pastoring at Assumption has been “a huge privilege.” He called the parish “a symbol within the City of Windsor,” adding that overseeing dedicated parishioners who came from four parishes makes the current Assumption “a really great” institution.

The parish has 787 families, having lost 40 per cent when Assumption Church was closed. Otherwise, Restivo said, Assumption is “pretty ethnically diverse.”

There are longtime Windsor residents and many immigrants, such as Filipinos and Africans, who worship there.

Restivo’s pride is echoed in the words of anniversary planning committee co-chair Carmen Archibald, who’s also the parish’s wedding and hospitality coordinator.

“For myself, knowing that three other parishes were also dealing with closure and wandering in the desert, so to speak, made me feel like we needed to stay all together in order to move forward,” she said.

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