Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Saint John, N.B., is undergoing extensive renovations. Wikipedia

Saint John reno a project of renewal

By  John Wilson, Register Correspondent
  • April 6, 2024

Renewal is in the air in the Diocese of Saint John where the restoration of the 170-year-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception continues to progress slowly but surely nearly a decade after preservation efforts launched.

The house of worship, built by immigrants fleeing Ireland during the Irish potato famine in the mid-1840s, is getting its ceiling, roof, steeple and foundation repaired. The engineering firm Heritage Standing Incorporated, under the guidance of Bishop Christian Riesbeck, is taking on the project.

“The first stone was laid in 1853, thanks to 400 volunteers,” said Riesbeck. “The first Mass celebrated was the midnight Mass in December of 1855.”

This project transcends exterior revitalization. The bishop views the project, which began shortly after he arrived in the New Brunswick diocese in 2014, as reflecting a more profound renewal.

“I saw the scaffolding when I first walked in. To me, it was a sign of needed restoration; not just physical restoration but the restoration and renewal of souls.”

Fr. Ralph McRae, the cathedral’s rector, furthered this idea in an interview with The Catholic Register, referring to the cathedral as “the city’s church” and emphasizing its significance as a gathering place for the faithful.

“It’s very important to the renewal of this area. It’ll be a visible sign of renewal,” he said.

Stabilizing the cathedral’s 230-foot bell tower and spire, a distinguishing trait of its Gothic revival architecture and one of the highest points on the city skyline, represents one of the costliest phases of the restoration, estimated at around $2 million.

Heritage Standing is working with researchers from the University of Toronto and with struct-lab, a McGill University research group headed by Dr. Daniele Malamo, and sharing a funding partnership with Mitacs. These partnerships have allowed Heritage Standing to decrease the project’s costs significantly and better identify the principal factors contributing to the spire’s destabilization.

“We’ve installed some monitoring equipment, so we want to look at the root causes first and then do the proper stabilization of the tower,” Riesbeck said. “Then we would like to address the work needed for masonry and the stained-glass windows.”

In a December 2023 letter to the faithful, Riesbeck said the sale of the former St. Vincent’s High School accrued $500,000 for the work on the cathedral tower. The diocesan faithful also contributed $30,000 towards the diocese’s annual Corpus Christi fundraiser, which helped secure the windows.

This year marks the eighth anniversary of the restoration’s first significant achievement: the roof’s repair in 2016. Immediately following this, the church ceiling needed repair due to extensive leakage and subsequent water damage. These critical repairs were estimated to cost about $1.5 million.

“I just surrendered the project to Our Lady,” Riesbeck said. “Within a few months, however, we had some major donations. With the help of these donations from the faithful, we were able to raise enough money to fix the ceiling.”

The ceiling repair was finished in 2022, and it was an important moment for the diocesan flock.

“The scaffolding was removed,” Riesbeck recalled. “That was a great sign of hope for the faithful.”

As rector, McRae hopes the renewal of the cathedral will spark new life into the many ministries offered by the diocese, including a young adults group led by the director of Missionary Discipleship Formation, a charismatic renewal group and a religious education program offered in both English and Spanish.

“The pandemic has done a real number on our volunteers,” McRae said. “We’re hoping the renewal of the building will inspire people also to come and to be involved.” 

Although an exact timeline for completing renovations is not yet set, the project is expected to take several more years.

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