A new copper roof is just one of the new features of historic Assumption Church in Windsor, Ont. The parish has been undergoing a years-long renovation, which Paul Mullins, expects to cost up to $15 million. Photo courtesy Assumption Parish

Assumption church in Windsor slowly returns to past glory

  • February 10, 2022

Windsor’s historic Our Lady of the Assumption Church has been declared “saved” by the National Trust for Canada. But for the 294-year-old parish the road to salvation begins with reconciliation.

Architectural preservation experts at the National Trust think of salvation in rather narrowly physical terms. The organization had declared Assumption, an imposing gothic revival structure built in 1842 — though the parish dates back to 1728 — “endangered” in 2015. At that point Assumption had been closed since November 2014 because the building was unsafe. To the parishioners’ and the National Trust’s dismay, there was no plan to shore the church up against weather and the insidious, undeclared war time wages against everything and everyone.

It’s all part of bringing an important heritage building back to life, one that is not only of significance to Windsor and the Catholic Church, but to Canada as a whole.

A new copper roof, new hot water heating system, removal of asbestos and work stabilizing the structure got the church reopened to parishioners in September 2019. Now two-thirds of planned interior work is completed that will keep the plaster from falling off and reveal some of the glory of the original design.

“We’ve got $4.3 million in hand now. We need another $2 million to finish off everything on the interior,” said parishioner and lawyer Paul Mullins, who has become the driving force behind the four-phase restoration that will eventually cost between $10 and $15 million. The parish is aiming to get it all done by 2028, the 300th anniversary of Ontario’s oldest parish.

January’s declaration from the National Trust that the building is saved will help Mullins and other volunteers to raise more money. But the Assumption team is interested in more than just bricks and mortar.

Restoration of the parish means reclaiming its history — a history interwoven with the history of the Huron and Wendat First Nations. Assumption began with a request from the Huron, asking the Jesuits to send a “Black Robe” to minister to them. The Huron at that time were refugees, forced off their own territory by Iroquois who waged war on behalf of the British in a bloody struggle to control the fur trade. The Huron found refuge as guests of the Three Fires Confederacy, an alliance of Ojibwe, Odaway and Potawatomi peoples who defended their territory at the south end of the Great Lakes against the Iroquois.

Recovering that history has meant conversations with local Indigenous people, primarily the Walpole Island First Nation.

“The conversation is respectful,” Walpole Island Heritage Centre manager Dean Jacobs told The Catholic Register. “I think we’re both learning a little bit ourselves. I’ve been learning more about the local issues in the Church and how they work. He (Mullins) is learning, I can’t speak for him, but he’s saying he’s learning a lot about our history and who we are today.”

There’s no pretence here that a quick handshake means bygones will be bygones, said Mullins. Recovering the history of Catholic interactions with Indigenous people means the whole history, including residential schools, he said.

“This whole idea that reconciliation starts with truth I find really meaningful to any of the Indigenous I’ve had the chance to interact with,” Mullins said.

As Mullins and Indigenous leaders crafted a land acknowledgement for the parish and sought ways to atone for a painful history, over last summer it had to confront the outcry over residential schools.

When the parish proposed possibly changing the name of the Rosary Chapel to Truth and Reconciliation Chapel, Indigenous partners applied the brakes. They didn’t want a token gesture that would sweep the problem under the rug.

A reconciliation conversation isn’t over in 10 minutes, said Jacobs.

“Once you have a better appreciation of our presence and our history, and that we’re still here, then that conversation gets a lot stronger and more meaningful,” he said.

The Detroit Treaty of 1790 is part of Canada’s Constitution and needs to be part of people’s awareness of what it means to live in southwestern Ontario, said Jacobs.

“We want everybody to flourish. We really are very vocal on saying we’ve been here for a long time and we want to continue to flourish,” he said.

London Bishop Ron Fabbro puts the Assumption restoration project at the centre of his diocese’s hopes for reconciliation.

“When you go back to that history of the relationships that the early settlers formed with the Huron, it’s really inspiring,” Fabbro said.

“They were working together, celebrating in this little mission church together. That’s the roots of this church, this parish… This is about now building our relationships with the Indigenous all over again.”

With Fabbro’s blessing, Assumption has applied to Parks Canada for a National Historic Site designation. Indigenous partners have endorsed that application and helped with the historical information Parks Canada requires.

“If that does come through, then it will put the heritage project in a different category,” said Mullins. “It would remove it beyond just being a denominational parish to one that’s a nationally significant endeavour.”

That means a different kind and level of donor. Should corporate donors step up, they would be funding a vital asset for the entire community, Mullins said. The Assumption Cares program keeps the parish’s focus outward, not inward, with services to downtown Windsor.

“There is a whole series of programs that the parish has developed to serve the needs of the community in these really secular areas,” said Mullins.

But the here-and-now programs have to be rooted in history, said the bishop.

“I’ve got a lot to learn and I think that’s the journey our diocese is on now — learning from the Indigenous and how we can walk together on this path of reconciliation and healing,” said Fabbro.

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