“Churches of any faith are such a big part of the community,” she said.
So when a friend of the family shared with the Truro, Nova Scotia resident an advertisement looking for people to help identify ways to give the deconsecrated structure a new lease on life, Lee was fully on board with getting involved.
She is now part of a 10-person advisory committee chaired by Bishop Anthony Daniels of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Falls. Lee has served as a co-ordinator of sorts within the group. Over the last few months, its members have held meetings by teleconference and conducted research looking into ways that the church can be sustainably preserved.
“We’re a pretty positive group of like-minded people who feel strongly about preserving and protecting the heritage (of the church),” Lee told The Compass last week. “I think we’re all on the same page of being optimistic … yet I think we all kind of have our feet on the ground.”
The diocese closed the church in the fall of 2014, citing a decline in attendance at services, a shrinking volunteer base and high maintenance costs as factors in the decision. An engineering assessment from 2013 estimated it would cost $9 million to restore the 124-year-old structure, which has stone walls and was inspired by the Gothic Revival architectural movement.
“When you think to way-back-when how it was built and maintained, we figure we can certainly do our part to keep it going and preserved and protected for future generations,” said Lee.
A big part of any repurposing plan will involve identifying resources for funding restoration work. The committee did manage to get some sections of the church’s exterior boarded up before the winter in order to protect it from the elements.
The advisory committee includes people who bring a variety of viewpoints to the table. There are those with a professional background in heritage preservation and folklore, retired educators, and even a stonemason who worked previously on restoration of the church. It includes current and former residents of Harbour Grace, as well as those from neighbouring areas.
So far, a wide range of examples have been identified of formerly holy structures used in new ways. Lee cites the English Harbour Arts Centre on the Bonavista Peninsula as one of many interesting projects that have been successfully realized in Newfoundland and Labrador. The St. George’s Heritage Church in Brigus is booked for concerts and other events, and renovations got started last year on transforming the former Heyfield United Memorial Church in Heart’s Content into a community arts centre.
“There’s lots of places we can learn from,” she said.
Lee said a big building like the church in Harbour Grace could become a multipurpose space for different community groups to use. It could benefit social development causes and simultaneously serve cultural interests, she suggested.
The committee’s members hope to begin engaging the general public in the next couple of months.
“We’re quite anxious and wanting to start making those connections soon, for sure,” said Lee.