March 13, 2019 10:06 am

Sparks fly at Pointe-Claire council as angry residents grill mayor about church expansion

Pointe-Claire resident Louise Bissonnette angrily questioned John Belvedere about a proposed church expansion. Mar 12, 2019.

Dan Spector /Global News

City council in Pointe-Claire got off to a heated start on Tuesday evening as a small group of angry residents sparred with Mayor John Belvedere about a proposed expansion to a Coptic church in the area.

“How could the city allow this to happen?” demanded resident Louise Bissonette, after claiming a proposed parking lot at the church would remove a statue of the Virgin Mary. “This is historic. Allowing my street to be turned into a parking lot is not funny.”

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The quarrel was over plans for an expansion to St. Peter and St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church near Lakeshore and des Sources.  The church wants to knock down an abandoned school adjacent to it and use that land to expand its operation.

“I understand they have concerns, because it’s not there yet,” Father Peter Saad, the church’s priest, told Global News in an interview outside the council chamber. “I’m sure if they accept the project, they will see there was nothing to worry about in the first place.”

READ MORE: Coptic church expansion plans divide Pointe-Claire neighbourhood

St. Peter and St. Paul says it needs more space for Sunday school and social gatherings after church services. They want to build a sprawling new addition to the church that would include a gymnasium and a 56-space underground parking lot.

“On Sunday after liturgy, we want to have breakfast together, so we would like to have more space for it. Our social hall here is tight,” church member Mina Guirguis told Global News outside the church.

After citizens voiced their concerns in recent months, Pointe-Claire organized a referendum on the issue.

“The advanced vote for the referendum is March 31st, and the actual referendum is April 7th, so you have two chances to come voice your opinion,” Belvedere explained in an interview with Global News.

Later, during council, when Belvedere interrupted Bissonnette’s questioning to point to the coming referendum, she shouted “I’m tired of hearing about that,” in the council chamber.

“I don’t understand why they don’t want it,” Belvedere told Global News. “Maybe they don’t want change. I think it’s a great asset to the area.”

Bissonnette grilled the mayor about where the entrance to the underground parking garage would be, and about who would make sure the church didn’t allow more than 400 people at once.

READ MORE: Referendum to decide fate of controversial Pointe-Claire Coptic church expansion plan

Another resident, Anna Merulla, claimed the expansion would be far bigger than the abandoned school, and asked questions about parking regulations. Belvedere said he would have to double check her claims.

Certain residents worry there would be increased traffic in the area, and that they would have difficulty parking. They claim parking is already difficult because of the church.

“Traffic on de L’Eglise is constantly bombarded by cars from the church that are blocking our driveways, causing snow removal problems,” Bissonnette said to the mayor. “It has gotten to a point that it is preventing us from having family and friends to visit. Do we now have to go to the church to ask permission to park on our own street?”

WATCH: Pointe-Claire residents upset over plans for new church hall

On Tuesday evening there were three cars at the church.

“You’re shooting on a Tuesday evening, we only have three cars here. And that’s only for tutoring for the kids,” said Guirguis. He conceded that on Sundays the church attracts a lot of cars, but said that during the week activities are minimal.

The church claims the expansion would not bring any additional people, and would only add to the services already offered to its current congregation.

Other residents in Pointe-Claire support the church expansion.

“I think what they want to do in the community is great,” said Helen Yawnghwe, who lives a street over. “Communities benefit from having churches like that.”

“Personally, I don’t understand what their concerns are,” said Belvedere. “I think maybe its possible there’s some misinformation and that’s what the big concern is.  If they listen to us, the city, get real information or listen to the church, get the real information from them and not hearsay, I think that will clear up a lot of things.”

“We have all the plans to make sure the parking is controlled,” said Saad. “What will be there then will be an improvement to what is there now.”

At council, Saad proposed a meeting with angry residents and the mayor.

“We’re gonna be there to answer any questions. If they’d like to come see us, we will talk to them again,” said Father Peter Saad. “We’ve tried to do so on numerous occasions and other consultations and we’ll keep trying. We sincerely care about each and every one of them and our plan is to be the best neighbors we can be That’s what Christianity is all about.”

About 160 residents are eligible to vote in the coming referendum.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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