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Renovated former schoolhouse in Merigomish has become a hub in every sense

Dave Hillier and Debbie Ratcliffe stand outside the Merigomish Schoolhouse Community Centre.
Dave Hillier and Debbie Ratcliffe stand outside the Merigomish Schoolhouse Community Centre.

The list of events hosted at the Merigomish Schoolhouse Community Centre since it was renovated and reopened is long.

With everything from wedding receptions and family reunions to weekly bridge games, yoga and zumba and a Sunday market, the place is usually bustling. A chip truck has also been set up in the yard this summer.

And that was the idea when the Merigomish and Area Recreation and Social Association was formed to turn around the fortunes of the building, which had fallen into disrepair.

“To me this is a real gathering place,” said Debbie Ratcliffe, a member of MARSA, who together with her late husband Pete and many others, spearheaded the project.

She said she thinks it’s “very important” for the community to have a place of its own for activities and other social events. When the idea was first raised, at first she thought that since the community is only about 15 minutes from New Glasgow, maybe it wasn’t necessary to have something available closer to home. But then she realized that people don’t always want to travel into the nearby towns.

“You can see it on a Sunday morning,” she said, when people are at the market, enjoying sticky buns and tea and having a nice, long chat with their neighbours. “It’s a good atmosphere.”

For Dave Hillier, who is originally from Ontario and moved to Merigomish from Halifax 12 years ago, he said he wouldn’t have met many people in the community if it wasn’t for the community centre.

“It’s huge for the community,” said Hillier, who is the acting president of MARSA. “People come in droves to the trivia night and concerts. It’s a great social connection.”

The schoolhouse, built as a one-room school in 1890, ceased operating as an educational facility in 1976. It functioned for many years as a community centre run by volunteers, but then fell into disrepair after the group disbanded.

Ratcliffe said it sat with nothing happening for quite a period of time, before MARSA was formed in 2007 to try to restore it, adding a new roof and windows, installing flooring and insulating the walls, and ensuring it met building code regulations. “We thought it would be worthwhile fixing. A lot of people worked to get these things done.”

Along with the Ratcliffes and Hillier and his wife Linda Jackson, Kelly McVicar and Harley Kellock, who has since passed away, were instrumental in getting the project underway and securing funding. Ratcliffe said about 30 people did the labour that was involved.

The first event held at the Merigomish Schoolhouse when it reopened in 2015 was a church murder mystery evening, and the grand opening was held in August of that year, with a concert featuring Jim Dorie, Doris Mason and Dave MacIsaac.

The next concert event takes place this Friday, with Lennie Gallant.

Hillier, a sound engineer, producer and musician, arranges the concerts because of his contacts in the music industry. “I live here and just want to do something for the community,” he said.

“We’re very, very lucky to have Dave here with us,” said Ratcliffe.

The annual Merigomish Family Fun Fest will also be held at the Schoolhouse at the end of the month.

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