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The Carillon - ONLINE EDITION

Historic Richer church sold

‘Heartbeat of the town’ in hands of volunteers

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 05/12/2019 10:21 AM

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Yvonne Fontaine-Godard, board president of Corporation du Site Historique Enfant-Jésus, is seen with a Dawson Trail Museum exhibit inside Église de l’Enfant-Jésus in Richer.

JORDAN ROSS | THE CARILLON Enlarge Image

Yvonne Fontaine-Godard, board president of Corporation du Site Historique Enfant-Jésus, is seen with a Dawson Trail Museum exhibit inside Église de l’Enfant-Jésus in Richer.

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The Archdiocese of Saint Boniface has relinquished ownership of Église de l’Enfant-Jésus in Richer to a group of volunteers who have been caring for the building for the past 20 years.

Corporation du Site Historique Enfant-Jésus purchased the 106-year-old church and adjacent grotto for $1 on Apr. 17.

Board president Yvonne Fontaine-Godard said no major operational changes are planned. The church will continue to host the Dawson Trail Museum, which opened in 2016, and be used for community events such as farmer’s markets and rummage sales.

But for the non-profit organization’s five-member board and 50 volunteers, the sale is more than a mere formality, Fontaine-Godard explained in an interview Monday.

"A church is the heartbeat of the town because that’s where we always met," she said. "This gives a sense of belonging. It belongs to the community."

The committee first asked the Archdiocese to consider selling the church in 2008, when the RM of Ste Anne conferred heritage status on the site.

"You have to prove yourself," Fontaine-Godard said of the decade-long process. "Over the years, they saw that we could keep it up."

The committee received a confidence boost last summer, when the Archdiocese donated $25,000 in recognition of the "tireless efforts" of its volunteers.

Archbishop Albert LeGatt said in a release he was pleased the building will live on after the sale as a hub of culture and community.

Over the past two years, the Archdiocese sold off most of the parish’s surrounding property, except for the cemetery and a one-acre plot occupied by the church and grotto.

The resulting $255,000 in proceeds were placed in a trust for cemetery maintenance. The work will be managed by the Ste Anne parish.

Fontaine-Godard said she was "so happy" with the arrangement, as the cemetery required a significant amount of volunteer labour during the summer.

"It was too much," she said.

Mass has been celebrated at the site along the historic Dawson Trail since the 19th century. A small, rudimentary wooden chapel was constructed in 1904 for the first resident priest.

Completed in 1913, Église de l’Enfant-Jésus served Richer’s Catholic community until 1995, when dwindling attendance closed its doors.

Not long after, a small group of volunteers, calling themselves Les Amis de la prière, formed to preserve the building.

Fontaine-Godard recalled kitchen table meetings with four or five people in attendance.

"When we first started, everything was up in the air."

The group slowly grew, and incorporated in 2000 as Corporation du Site Historique Enfant-Jésus.

Response to recent membership drives has been positive, and Fontaine-Godard expects the volunteer base will only grow as word of the sale travels.

Skilled volunteers will be essential to the building’s future. The committee carried out $300,000 worth of renovations over the past decade, and plans to complete $300,000 more. Electrical upgrades, insulation work, foundation improvements, and exterior paint are needed, Fontaine-Godard said.

"Now that we’re halfway there, there’s no sense turning around. This is such a beautiful building."

Pews were swapped out for folding tables and chairs, and the building now has an accessible bathroom and front entrance.

Moving forward, the committee hopes to increase rentals, with a focus on concerts and family functions. A condition of sale prevents the church from being used "for purposes that contravene the values of the Catholic Church."

The Archdiocese also retained the right to buy back the property for $1 in the unlikely event the committee dissolves.

Fontaine-Godard said she hopes mass can once again be held in the church on special occasions, with help from neighbouring parishes.

The Dawson Trail Museum opens for the season on May 20. Regular hours of operation are 1-4 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. A summer student will enable the museum to open five days a week in July and August.

More information can be found at dawsontrailmuseum.ca.

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