When the doors were shut on the Church of the Immaculate Conception in 2014, longtime parishioner Patrick Collins knew it would never be a church again.
For more than 100 years the spires towered over Harbour Grace, a landmark for ships and a gathering place for the community.
“It was very important for that, even though we didn’t realize it back then.… We knew the writing was on the wall for it as a building. As a symbol in the town, it was so hard to see it go downhill,” Collins told CBC News in a recent interview. “It was devastating to the town.”
Collins said the decision to close the Harbour Grace cathedral was made as the building became harder and harder to maintain. Just heating the big stone building for a weekend of mass cost hundreds of dollars.
And with millions needed in repairs, it was time to move on.
But in a shuttered old church, with the plaster ceilings falling down, Brenda O’Reilly saw opportunity.
“We’re looking for something that’s rural, telling the Newfoundland and Labrador story on the ocean,” said O’Reilly, the owner of Yellowbelly Brewery. “This building is iconic in this town … and we have big plans for this area.”
The church, built in the late 1800s, was purchased by O’Reily and her husband, Craig Flynn, in 2017. They’re spending millions to refurbish the space and create a hospitality hub centred on the Harbour Grace church.
The church’s east transept will house restaurant, the west transept will become a brewery and distillery, and the crypt is being dug out to create a spa. There are also plans to create a hotel on the property.
Use cases for churches like O’Reilly’s vision are becoming more common across Canada, largely driven by the need for churches and congregations to downsize as parishioners get older and fewer young people come through the doors.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, hundreds of Roman Catholic parish properties have also been sold to compensate survivors of sexual abuse at the former Mount Cashel Orphanage.
They’ve been these remarkably, kind of, dynamic social cultural spaces– Nicholas Lynch
Nicholas Lynch, an associate professor of geography researching sustainable communities and the adaptive reuse of buildings at Memorial University, told CBC News more churches are finding new uses across the country — like the brewery in Harbour Grace, or for housing and community centres in other parts of Canada.
Those uses can be especially important, he said, as they can keep church buildings as social hubs where people gather.
“They’ve been these remarkably, kind of, dynamic social cultural spaces,” he said.
“You can sort of imagine hanging out in a church, in a cathedral [with] large open spaces. You can consume, have some of the beer and the food, and experience this kind of interesting juxtaposition between sort of, you know, drinking beer and hanging out in a church.”
Lynch says finding new uses for old churches is vital to keeping communities sustainable, especially as congregations continue to age and the problem snowballs.
He’s also watching how buildings moving into the private realm affects communities — O’Reilly says it’s something she’s fully aware of and she’s eager to host community events inside the building.
It’s also the plan for Chris Shortall of Pouch Cove, who unexpectedly came into owning St. Agnes Church after throwing what he said were “lowball” bids on four properties on a whim.
He told CBC News this week that he isn’t entirely certain of what the building will become but he sees value in keeping it as a community space.
“It’s got a good location in the community with a really great view.… The property itself has value, at least to me,” he said.
“Hopefully people will rent it and use it for music and poetry readings and theatres and dance parties.… I think it should, if possible, be used as a community space because it’s got lots of good seating and it’s got pretty good acoustics. It could be used as a really nice space.”
In Harbour Grace, Collins says he’s excited for the future of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Although he knows it won’t be his place of worship, he takes comfort in knowing its story can still be shared on the walls of the new brewery.
“Harbour Grace has a great history, a great culture here, great heritage, and that church itself has a great history,” he said.
“I think they’re going to do it tastefully, so we’re able to interpret the history of this town. And I think that’s the direction we need to go in.”
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