The historic St. Bernard Church in Digby County, N.S.. Photo from Wikimedia

Future preserved for historic Acadian church in Nova Scotia

  • August 3, 2023

A deconsecrated Catholic Church in Digby County, N.S., facing the grim prospect of demolition for months has been afforded a new lease on life.

Non-profit organizations Nation Prospère Acadie and La Société Héritage Saint Bernard jointly purchased the historic St. Bernard Church, ratifying an agreement with the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth July 28. 

This 1,300 square-metre building, opened in 1942, is considered a crown jewel landmark for the local Acadian community. Closed since summer 2022 because of the steep drop in Mass attendance, St. Bernard was put up for sale by the archdiocese in March with a $250,000 asking price. 

Michel Cyr, president of Nation Prospère Acadie’s board of directors, said his organization, founded in 2018 with a mission to support Acadian cultural landmarks, was honoured to step forward to help secure a future for St. Bernard Church. 

"As heirs to this remarkable Acadian heritage, we are proud to undertake this new safeguarding project,” said Cyr.

Striking an accord with the archdiocese is just a vital first step in forging a vibrant future for the former Catholic church. The new owners will continue the $2.5-million fundraising campaign begun in April to restore the parish. The proposed deadline for this ambitious fundraiser is June 2024.

Cyr said that ideally, a renovated St. Bernard’s will play a prominent role in the Acadian World Congress, which is being co-hosted by nearby towns Clare and Argyle in southwest Nova Scotia from Aug. 10 to 18, 2024. 

“We have approached the organizers of the congress in an unofficial fashion,” confirmed Cyr. “Details are pretty sketchy right now, but, from our view, the building itself has an exceptionally terrific acoustic. It lends itself to all kinds of concerts, whether it be popular or classical music.”

In June, The Catholic Register reported that the first month of the fundraiser accrued a tally of $120,000. Since that time some additional private donations have been collected, but Cyr said he could not attain an exact figure from Nation Prospère Acadie’s executive director Daniel LeBlanc since he is out of the country. However, enough funds have apparently been collected to enable the restoration to commence.

Jean LeBlanc (not a relation of Daniel), president of the Société Héritage Saint-Bernard, said that "over the next few weeks, minor work will be carried out, including restoring water and sewer services to the building."

Repairs to the former parish are estimated to cost $1.325 million. Retrofitting the heat and electrical systems, fixing interior water damage and repairing the exterior mortar are some of the items on the to-do list. 

Some money from this fundraiser is slated to finance a feasibility study to determine potential uses for the building.

The Société Héritage Saint-Bernard is publicly advocating for the institution to be converted into apartments because of the shortage of rural housing options provincewide. Cyr said this suggestion will be considered, but it is not the idea Nation Prospère Acadie has top of mind. It envisions the building being used for civic functions.

“At this point we are not discarding any such project for the time being, but it is not our first option. Our first option would be to protect the building by adding a new roof to help preserve the wonderful acoustic for anything that has to do with concerts or any other uses for the community.”

Cyr added that the organizers behind the local farmer’s market have already proposed using the St. Bernard basement for summer weekends.

Though the old parish first opened its doors for Mass 81 years ago, its history began over 30 years earlier. In 1910, French settlers began constructing St. Bernard Church. Over 32 years, the Acadians built a grand house of worship using over 8,000 blocks of granite and Douglas Fir plywood from British Columbia. Local carpenters poured their talents into building the altar, railings, confessional booth and flooring. 

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