Community seeks to save 1907 Exshaw church
Thursday, Nov 28, 2013 06:00 am
The Exshaw community is rallying behind St. Bernard’s Catholic Church for one last push to see if it is possible to save the 113-year-old building.
The Lafarge cement plant announced recently that the church – both the 1907 and the 1967 portions – will have to be demolished sometime in the spring of 2014. A fence has since been put up around the church.
The church, which was decommissioned in 2002, sits on Crown land leased by Lafarge and, according to provincial regulations, abandoned or unused buildings on lease land have to be demolished.
Christ the Redeemer Catholic Schools Division had been considering moving the 1967 chapel to Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy in Canmore. However, Superintendent Scott Morrison, who started with the division in May, said Wednesday he understood the cost and logistics to move the chapel had proven to be too high and too difficult.
Lafarge representative Michelle Gurney said the plant needs the land where the church sits as construction of the plant’s new kiln line has put space at a premium.
“We need to use the space, whether that is for a parking lot or a lay-down area or something else yet to be determined,” Gurney said. “We do have some challenges in the plant site for traffic routing and parking given the extra traffic we have at the site with the expansion.”
Gurney added that when Lafarge saw the question of church ownership was coming before council during its special meeting on Nov. 6, the plant contacted members in the community.
“We needed somebody who would be a champion for the next step, whatever it is they would like to do. Whether it is one last attempt to move the building, having some sort of ceremony that closes the building for them, whether it is removing any parts of the building that have value or meaning for them, we’re open to that and that’s why we made the call to them and that’s why (we met) with them now,” Gurney said.
Lynda Grischkat and Rick Craig, a Canmore resident and former school board trustee who grew up in Exshaw, met with Lafarge on Nov. 21 to discuss options for the historical building.
“We met with Lafarge and we did have a positive response to that and we’re waiting for some answers,” Grischkat said Tuesday (Nov. 26). “It’s basically about trying to fit into their timeline and the (response was) positive and they were open to us giving them an idea of how we could do it.
“We’re looking at it as honouring our heritage, you might say. It could be anything from moving this church and saving her to making sure she is well documented. We’ve cracked the door open a little bit and we’ll see how far we go with it.”
The best-case scenario, said Grischkat, who has lived in Exshaw since 1978, is to move the 1907 church to a new location in Exshaw, however, she added there are steps that have to occur first.
“It would be nice to see that life come back to her and see her used again, but that is way down the road,” she said. “Right now, we don’t know what we have to work with so that’s why we wanted to have our meeting with Lafarge. Let’s find out what we have to work with. We’ve done that and we’re collecting other information and organizing a community meeting and we’ll see where it goes.”
The question of saving St. Bernard’s came before the community, the MD and Lafarge in 2009 and again in 2011, when former Exshaw resident Laurie Lohmann-Court initiated a drive to save the 1907 church. It was slated for demolition as part of the proposal to move the 1967 chapel to Canmore.
Even though those earlier initiatives did not reach a decisive outcome, Grischkat said both have helped to inform this current push.
“We don’t look at those as failures. We have learned from those times and our philosophy now is to use those lessons and focus on moving forward, one step at a time, see where we land and do it well enough so we can move on. A bit of a leap of faith some might say, but we and many others feel it’s a leap worth taking,” she said.
As the sole remaining building from the original town, Grishkat said it ties new residents of the hamlet to long-term residents through a shared history and heritage.
“It’s about our heritage and she’s the last publically used building along Portland Avenue and that’s an important tie to the heritage of this community and a lot was sacrificed way back then. She was saved back then and maybe we can do it again,” she said.
Grischkat said the next steps, following the meeting with Lafarge, are to write a feasibility study, a business plan and a structural engineering report, but before any of that can occur, a community meeting has to be held.
“We need the information and we need to see if the community wants to move forward. We’re further than we’ve ever been before. We’ve talked to the owners and they’re saying we’ll take a look at it,” she said. “We’re not trying to make a decision for the community, we want the community on board. How are we going to get her out of there, if we can?”
A structural assessment has been completed, but Grischkat said the church needs an engineering assessment to establish if it can be moved.
Bighorn Reeve Dene Cooper said council voted Nov. 6 to confirm with Lafarge that the municipality has no interest in retaining the St. Bernard church buildings located in Exshaw under municipal ownership.
On Monday, Nov. 18, Cooper said council chose not to take on ownership of the church and relocate it given the costs that would be associated with a project of that nature as the MD has to put a priority on flood mitigation work, he added.
“I haven’t got an end use in the community that would allow for the kind of expenses that allow for moving and refurbishing of these buildings, as cherished as they are, and I have no doubt they are cherished,” Cooper said.
“Council said ‘we’ve run out of time. Decisions are being made and we haven’t got the end use that would allow for these expenditures.’ And it would result in a direct cost to the Exshaw community as a supplementary taxation.
“It has severe economic consequences, which we are not prepared to entertain, nor are we going to change our focus right now from the flood and creeks and river.”
Even so, Griskhat said it is still worthwhile to explore the options to see what is possible, as a way to honour those who built the town and its community.
“There’s ties to Exshaw all through this valley and even further and people still call it home. A lot of those people have long family histories here and we have a lot of new people in Exshaw and wouldn’t it be nice to tie all that together for the people that have left Exshaw and worked so hard to keep it? It recognizes the heritage and what they’ve done for the current people,” she said. “There’s no other structures in town that tie all of that together.”
St. Bernard’s is today the last building on what was once Exshaw’s main street, Portland Avenue. The rest of old Exshaw, often referred to as Uptown Exshaw, was bulldozed to make way for 1974-75 cement plant expansion project.
For more information about the initiative to save the church, go to “Save the original Exshaw Catholic Church” on Facebook. The heritage statement of significance for the church can be found on the MD of Bighorn website under the Heritage Resources Committee link.
The MD is currently storing wrought-iron gates made by Secundo Smaniotto that stood at the entrance of the church. Smaniotto also made the iron rooster that stands in Canmore at the entrance to the industrial park off 17th Street near Canmore Collegiate High School.