Fundraiser to save historic, deconsecrated Nova Scotia church falling short of goal

A 32-day fundraising campaign to preserve a huge and historic Acadian church in western Nova Scotia has raised only a fraction of the funds needed to save the building. An aerial photo of Saint Bernard Roman Catholic Church in St. Bernard, N.S., on the province’s southwestern coast, is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Travis Baker. Travis Baker

A 32-day fundraising campaign to preserve a huge and historic Acadian church in western Nova Scotia has raised only a fraction of the funds needed to save the building.

The chairman of Nation Prospere Acadie, a non-profit group leading the campaign, says about $116,000 of the $2.5-million goal has been donated toward repairing Saint Bernard Church and creating a trust fund to preserve it.

Michel Cyr says the money raised in the campaign, which ended on Tuesday, is not enough to purchase the building from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, or for the roof repairs and other upgrades required.

He says it’s expected the fundraising effort will continue for several more weeks, as his group approaches government officials and other potential donors more directly to save the building from being listed for sale and potentially demolished.

“The second phase of the campaign would be more direct,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not one where it’s passive and we’re expecting people to give us donations, but rather we’re going door to door to ask for donations.”

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The 1,300-square-metre landmark southwest of Digby, N.S., which opened in 1942, was constructed with 8,000 blocks of concrete hauled into the town of St. Bernard over three decades. But the years have taken a toll on the building, and the number of people attending mass has shrunk to the point where the church was closed and deconsecrated.

The original goal of the campaign was to raise the money to buy the land and building from the diocese and to install a metal roof, repair water damage and upgrade the heating system. All of this was to occur in time for the World Acadian Congress, scheduled in the nearby Clare and Argyle region in August 2024.

Cyr said that despite the emotional attachment some feel toward the structure, raising money is challenging in an era when people prefer donating to local recreational facilities rather than religious landmarks.

In addition, Acadian communities, which in earlier generations often struggled economically, seldom have long-established trust funds and foundations dedicated toward the preservation of historic sites, he added.

Cyr said he didn’t think the slow pace of fundraising was due to any hostility to the Roman Catholic Church itself, noting his organization’s goal is to eventually develop an alternative use for the building.

Donations will continue to be accepted, he said, adding that if the fundraising goal isn’t met, the money will go to Saint Bernard Heritage Society, a non-profit group in the community.

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In the original news release announcing the campaign, Nation Prospere Acadie said the building had been a central part of the local landscape for more than 80 years, “and it is incumbent upon all of us, as heirs to this proud heritage, to safeguard it today.”

“To succeed with this endeavour is one of the greatest tributes we can pay to the Acadian people in Nova Scotia.”

The construction of Saint Bernard Church began in 1910 under the leadership of Rev. Edouard LeBlanc, who in 1912 became the first Acadian bishop.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2023.

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