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Coaticook MRC: Religious Heritage under the Microscope

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--April 9, 2011.

larger_coaticook.1.jpgA conference on the religious heritage in the MRC of Coaticook, organized by the regional "Table de concertation culturelle," was held last Thursday in Coaticook. The bilingual event attracted about forty participants, including civil servants and elected officials from towns in the region, church officials from various denominations, cemetery custodians, and ordinary citizens with an interest in the preservation of sites of religious significance. The Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network, represented by Matthew Farfan, also took part.

Hosting the event were Jean-Pierre Pelletier, a municipal councillor from Barnston-Ouest, Michèle Lavoie, president of the Table de concertation, and Lucie Tremblay, the mayor of Saint-Herménégilde.

The Coaticook MRC is made up of twelve municipalities -- Stanstead-Est, Barnston-Ouest, Coaticook, Dixville, Saint-Herménégilde, East Hereford, Saint-Venant, Saint-Malo, Waterville, Martinville, Compton, and Sainte--Edwidge-de-Clifton, each of which has its own distinct cultural and religious history.

The purpose for the meeting was to bring together people working to preserve and promote religious sites around the MRC. Three types of religious heritage -- churches, cemeteries, and wayside crosses -- were discussed.
Councillor Pelletier gave a slide presentation of the thirty-four churches and former churches situated in the MRC. The audience provided a running commentary on each church.

There then followed a discussion of the sometimes overwhelming problems that churches and their custodians face: rising costs of upkeep, insurance, diminishing congregations, orphaned churches, lack of volunteers, lack of expertise, and government red-tape when it comes to restoration grants.

There were some success stories -- like Cisco Memorial Church in Coaticook, which has been converted into a concert hall and cultural centre.

larger_img_5650_0.jpgBut there were many more horror stories, such as the one related by Russell Nichols, who is a trustee of St. James the Less Anglican Church in Compton, built in 1886. Nichols said that his church is in dire need of foundation work, work that has been estimated at $180,000.

He said that because the church was given a low "heritage rating" years ago by the Ministry of Culture, in a rating system that has been widely criticized ever since it was introduced, the church has been denied funding both times it was requested. "We only have eight or ten families left," he said. "At this rate, the church will probably end up falling apart."

Another participant described the condition of St. Cuthbert's Anglican Church (1884) in Dixville. "This one is in peril," she said. "Yes, that church's "days are numbered," agreed someone else. "It's nice inside, but there's no congregation and no maintenance."

There were other stories. Two or three groups claimed that the architects responsible for piloting their churches' restoration projects had not done their job. "We lost half of our funding because of our architect," said a woman involved in the restoration of the region's oldest Baptist Church.

Following the discussion of the challenges that churches face, Sylvie Harvey of the MRC gave an overview of a recent study on cemeteries and wayside crosses (croix de chemin). "Now," she said "we'll know exactly what we have -- what types of cemeteries, how many, and the condition they're in. From there we'll be able to work on an action plan." The study includes descriptions of the 85 public and private burial grounds known to exist in the MRC, historic information, condition, and photos.

It was noted that cemeteries have their own particular set of challenges. Lack of upkeep, vandalism, lack of personnel, access problems, crumbling stones, and issues associated with ownership (in the case of cemeteries located on private property) were just a few of the problems mentioned.

Solutions were suggested, including one put forward by QAHN that that all cemeteries in the province, including privately owned ones, should be recognized and protected by the Quebec government as heritage sites.
Jean-Pierre Pelletier suggested that groups of volunteers "adopt a cemetery," much like highways are adopted in some areas.

By the end of the afternoon, it was clear that church and cemetery custodians face huge challenges -- especially in terms of funding and personnel. The mood, however, was upbeat -- perhaps because through events like this people realize that they are not alone.

A second meeting will likely be scheduled in the near future to work on a plan of action for churches and cemeteries. Anyone who would like to participate may call Michèle Lavoie at (819) 849-2088.