The former Holy Ghost Church in Coleman, Alta., is now owned by Kym Howse with her husband Doug. Howse is renovating it so that it can be used as a vacation home when she and her family are not living there. Photos courtesy Kym Howse

At home in the church

  • June 12, 2021

On the ceiling above what used to be the front counter of the Blackbird Coffee House in Coleman, Alta., is a striking fresco depicting Jesus clothed in red, kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane. His right arm reaches delicately towards an angel.

Not the usual view one would have should they look up after paying for a cup of java, but for property owner Kym Howse, it is the perfect setting.

The fresco is part of what remains from the property’s former glory — nearly 100 years as Holy Ghost Catholic Church. It’s been Howse’s since 2007 when she purchased the 100-year-old church.

Howse was always struck by the property while passing it numerous times on the Crowsnest Pass during the three-hour drive from Calgary to Fernie, B.C., to visit her brother. The clay artist, former boutique owner and mother of three didn’t know what she would do with it at the time but says Catholic churches have always represented for her a place of “peace.” It has been her heart’s desire that the old church would bring a sense of serenity to many others.

“I really think that this place is for people just to take a breath,” said Howse. “Every time I come from the city, I walk into that building and literally just pause. Whether you’re seeing the light as the sun comes up through the stained-glass windows or as the sun comes down on the other side, there’s something about it that just gives you a breath. It’s very calming. It is like a bit of solace, I think.”

And it gave her son something to be proud of. Just three years old at the time, he thought it an exciting fact to share with the kids at school.

“My son was asked at school what made him original and he got up at the time and said, ‘I’m original because I live in a
church,’ ” Howse said with a chuckle.

Howse and her husband Doug have their hands deep in renovations at the property now. The plan is to split their time between Coleman and Calgary, renting it out as a vacation home for part of the year.

The history of Holy Ghost Church, later called Holy Spirit Church, is intertwined with the settlement of the area. It was built in 1905 under the direction of Fr. E. DeWilde as Coleman developed into a mining town at the turn of the century. Demand for churches and schools grew with the population. It was constructed on land donated by International Coal and Coke, a mining company that had been selling lots for residential and commercial development.

It remained a functioning church within the Calgary diocese until late in the century, when on May 1, 1997 then Calgary Bishop Paul O’Byrne closed the parish following a diocesan review of viable parishes.

A decade later Howse sold her house in Calgary to buy the church. She built a house around the back and lived there with her family from 2007 to 2013.

The sale of a church is covered under canon 1222.2 of the Code of Canon Law. A sale is allowed under certain conditions, including that it not be used for a “sordid” purpose, the bishop has obtained consent of those who could claim lawful rights over the building and also that he must be sure the good of souls will not be harmed by the sale.

While the church may no longer function as it was planned, it doesn’t mean it is forgotten, said Carol Hollywood, archivist at the Calgary diocese.

“Churches may close but the people haven’t closed,” said Hollywood. “The people that lived in the rural areas took their faith with them and they pass it on. It’s very sad for the communities for whom it signifies the loss of the community they once knew. But generally speaking I think there are Masses of thanksgiving for the service that the building has produced. We are pilgrims so we don’t stay put.”

After Howse purchased the church, from time to time musicians would come to play there, taking advantage of the fantastic church acoustics, and Howse evolved the space into a café as a result. Since shutting the door on that venture around 2018, the property pretty much laid dormant for a few years. As COVID uncertainty hit, Howse considered selling it. However, as she stepped back into the one-and-a-half storey building, taking in the age and character of the stained-glassed windows depicting the stations of the cross and the gothic-influenced architectural details, she became enamoured with it once more.

“With the pandemic, I really had the time to go there and sit in the building and I just really fell in love with it all over again,” said Howse. “Especially with everything that’s been going on it was just a very safe area to go back into and sit down. I honestly feel that every time this building is shown some love, it almost feels like it’s thanking you. It’s sort of coming back to life. It’s an incredible feeling.”

Though not an overly religious person, Howse has always felt a pull towards Catholicism. It may have something to do with her father, who grew up in a staunch Catholic family in his native Australia. She was not raised religious but says the church was something she found on her own later on in life. After graduating high school, she travelled to Australia and lived in England for four years and found herself drawn to the places of worship. She went on to study art history.

Though she doesn’t go to church regularly today, she aligns her beliefs with the Catholic faith. The family has taken a few trips to Italy over the past few years which her family jokingly calls the “church tour.” She finds walking into the historic buildings irresistible.

Howse continues to enjoy relaxing in her favourite spot, the choir loft where the ceiling art is within arm’s reach. Many have asked why she hasn’t undertaken more restorations of the painting and windows, but Howse remains committed to maintaining the character and integrity of the old church.

“It’s over a hundred years old and that’s what it should look like,” said Howse. “Replacing things is really not what it’s about. My hope for the space is for people to be able to get away from their otherwise really busy lives and be able just to sit down, relax, read a book or do absolutely nothing but stare up at the ceiling and at the old lights. It’s not a museum or a designer home put into a church. It is a home in a church.”

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