HARBOUR GRACE, N.L.
There are different ways to look at the Yellowbelly Brewery owners’ recent purchase of the former Catholic church in Harbour Grace, judging from what a few residents had to say when approached by The Compass about the topic.
It may be a forgone conclusion that any talk of new jobs in the Conception Bay North community will be warmly greeted. Over the last two decades, Harbour Grace has lost a boot factory, grocery store, liquor store and Canadian Tire store. The new owners, Craig Flynn and Brenda O'Reilly, plan to convert the structure into a brewery, beer garden, spa and hotel.
But for those with an attachment to the former Immaculate Conception Church, which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Falls closed in 2014, there’s a feeling of loss.
Larry O’Shea falls into that category. He was a parishioner for many years at the church and still has strong faith. The building’s sale gives him no pleasure.
“I think the church hierarchy has failed the congregation in regard to closing such a building that could house I would say all the needs of the parishioners who are active,” O’Shea told The Compass just outside the town’s post office. “And some would argue those numbers have fallen and the support is not there. I would argue the church in governance should foot the bill. Failing to do that, they’re failing the parishioners.”
The bill in question for restoration of the 126-year-old structure is considerable. A 2013 engineering assessment estimated the cost to complete restoration work would be $9 million, with the cost escalating over time. Between 1988 and 2014, $3 million was spent on restoration work.
Constructed in 1892 in a Gothic Revival style, the building utilizes stone walls. The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador designated the building as a registered heritage structure in 1990.
Others The Compass spoke with last week were far more receptive to the new owners’ plans for the building. Diane Rees believes it will improve the town’s economic fortunes and ultimately ensure the former church has a future.
“I think it will conserve the building itself instead of it falling down into disrepair, so I think it’s a really good idea,” she said.
Marcel Melanson agreed.
“Whatever it take to save it,” he said. “They do this sort of thing on the mainland all over the place. In Quebec there’s lot of (repurposed churches) and they might as well be doing it here too.”
He also stressed the importance of the project to the town itself, which has also attracted the attention of entrepreneurs looking at the former boot factory as a potential site for a cannabis grow-op.
“We need something here,” Melanson said, noting there isn’t much economic activity in the community beyond business centralized around the harbour. “Who knows? Maybe the marijuana thing at the boot company (will work out). Jobs count. Maybe with this we’ll get a grocery store again.”
Peter Sheppard said if the new owners’ vision is realized, it will be good news for Harbour Grace.
“It’s positive for the town, and I guess a lot of people who are stoic Roman Catholics don’t like the idea, but the world is changing,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we don’t agree with or like, but it’s just the way things are this day and age.
“It can create work and bring new families into Harbour Grace and this area, keep some of our young people here in the area so they can partake in the town’s activities. I think it’s great.”
At its most recent regular meeting held Monday, Oct. 22, Harbour Grace council voted unanimously to approve the new owners’ business application for the property.
Meanwhile, the advisory committee the diocese established to investigate repurposing opportunities has arranged an hour-long commemoration event, allowing people to gather in the former church one last time before renovations start. Bishop Anthony Daniels and the building’s new owners are among those expected to attend the event, scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 4 at 3 p.m.