With its new copper roof, Our Lady of Assumption in Windsor, Ont., is on its way down a restoration road. It reopened for Masses on Sept. 8 for the first time since 2014. Photo courtesy Assumption Parish

Grand re-opening was … well, grand

  • September 21, 2019

When Fr. Maurice Restivo looked out upon a packed congregation — about double Our Lady of Assumption Church’s capacity — he knew the historic parish was back.

About 1,000 people were in the pews at Our Lady of Assumption Church on Sept. 8 with London Bishop Ronald Fabbro presiding for the church’s first Mass in almost five years — a pretty good indication that the parish has risen from the ashes in a struggle to find the funds to return the church to its former glory.

“To me that was a real confirmation that we’re supposed to do the restoration and we’re supposed to get back in the church,” said Restivo, who has been pastor of the parish since shortly after the church closed in late 2014 with its parishioners moving to nearby Holy Name of Mary Church.

“We couldn’t believe the number of people. Everybody was happy, they were like, ‘We’re home.’ This is so good, you don’t know how much good this is doing. So many comments. It was beautiful.”

Restivo said he wasn’t expecting such huge numbers in subsequent Masses, but wasn’t surprised by the initial turnout because of how much Assumption means to Windsor and all of southwestern Ontario. Despite the circumstances, Assumption has always been, and remains, a very active parish, he said.

“The building is symbolic for the whole area and holds a great importance in the hearts of all Windsor-Essex people,” he said.

The church dates back to the early 1800s and a mission founded originally by French settlers. It’s considered the “mother church” of southwestern Ontario and is the oldest parish in Canada west of Montreal.

For a while though, Assumption’s survival was not a given. The 177-year-old church had been closed for five years due to severe structural deterioration. Masses had been moved to nearby Holy Name of Mary Church on the city’s west side as two efforts were undertaken — and failed — to raise the approximately $10 million needed to restore the church. The fund-raising saga included the withdrawal this summer of a $5-million matching pledge after the community contribution goal wasn’t met, the firing of a fund-raising consultant and the turning down of large donations from questionable sources. 

The campaign has taken a new direction under lawyer Paul Mullins, who was shocked at seeing the campaign “go sideways” twice. It’s gotten back on track under his direction and the restoration will be done in phases.

The first phase of renovations allowed for the church to open its doors. It called for stabilization of the building and a new copper roof, asbestos rehabilitation and a new heating system, budgeted at $2.25 million, though tenders came in $600,000 below that figure. The first two parts have been completed and the heating system is next, said Mullins.

Mullins was among the 1,000 on hand for the grand reopening Mass, despite not being a member of the parish. He actually lives in in the Woodslee area about a half hour’s drive east of Windsor, but like many Catholics in the area understood “the extraordinary place (Assumption has) in our history.”

“Many had given up hope of ever returning to Assumption Church,” said Mullins. “The spirit, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the joy was really gratifying.

“More than one described it as a minor miracle.”

The move to Holy Name of Mary had seen a drastic drop in Assumption parishioners. While it’s normal that about 30 per cent of a congregation will be lost when a parish closes, with the rest being absorbed by other parishes, Assumption lost a full 46 per cent of its members, said Restivo. 

“When you have a historic place that draws from all over, if that historic church closes, why drive across town to go to just another church,” Restivo said. “You might as well go to the one in your neighbourhood.”

Assumption’s gain will now  be Holy Name of Mary’s loss. It had new life breathed into it by taking in Assumption parishioners, but is slated to close eventually, though its hall will still be used for the time being. Restivo is hoping its parishioners will become part of the new Assumption congregation.

As for Assumption, Restivo is interested to see how many of the former parishioners will return. He was encouraged by a phone call he received in the week after the reopening. The person told him they hadn’t been to church since Assumption closed, but attended the Sept. 8 Mass and planned on being a regular again.

Now that phase one of the restoration is nearing completion, all eyes are on the next stage, which is plaster consolidation and paint restoration, said Mullins. The budget for this phase is $3.45-million, and the campaign has about $1 million on hand, according to Mullins. He’s hopeful the rest can be raised by the spring, and noted the collection for restoration at the opening Mass raised more than $57,000.

“That speaks pretty loudly as to what the mood of the parish is and of the community,” he said.

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