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'You brought the spirit with you’


Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Martha continue transition with deconstruction of Bethany Chapel

A 1980s video game character came to mind as she watched workers start the tear down.    

While a pair of backhoe buckets started to pull down the walls of historic Bethany Chapel in Antigonish, it reminded Sister Brendalee Boisvert of Pac-Man and the sound he made as he chomped down on power pellets.    

“I was teary-eyed,” the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Martha leader said.    

“Although we believe that this is the right decision, it did not make it an easy experience to watch.”    

A couple hours later, Boisvert and Sisters Joanne O’Regan and Mary MacFarlane sat around a conference table in the Mount Carmel Administration Centre to reflect on not only that moment earlier in the day, but also the continuing deconstruction of Bethany Motherhouse, including the chapel, where the congregation made its home for more than 95 years.    

“We have been preparing for this for a while,” Boisvert said, adding it was “not an easy decision.”    

MacFarlane said there were also tears for many Marthas, as they watched the process from the windows of neighbouring Parkland Antigonish, where they have resided since last March.  

“It was emotional,” she said.    

Although she understands those feelings, MacFarlane added, “I am thankful that we are at this point.”    

“I don’t feel sad about it,” she said.    

MacFarlane was congregation leader a few years ago, when the Marthas started to discuss the future of Bethany Motherhouse, comprised of expansive and again buildings, which was serving fewer and fewer members.    

“There was the expectation that this was going to happen,” she said, describing the chapel dismantling as a “natural transition” in the deconstruction initiative.    

The Sisters said the congregation is aware people in the community are “feeling a sense of loss,” as the buildings start to come down.    

“We have received some Facebook messages that indicate people’s disappointment that we are choosing to deconstruct this building,” Boisvert said.    

MacFarlane described such reactions as “people speaking out of their sentimentality,” while reminding that opting for deconstruction was a well thought out decision.    

“We need to assure our friends that we did explore every possible way to save or re-use these buildings and the decision to deconstruct was not made lightly,” Boisvert said.    

O’Regan, like her colleagues, agreed the tear down of the chapel was “hard to watch,” describing the moment, as she watched, as “bittersweet.”    

Nevertheless, she has no doubt they are on the right path.    

“We are moving into the future lighter,” O’Regan said, noting the growing strain of committing so many resources – monetary and otherwise – to the operation of the motherhouse.   

Considering their dedication to the environment, she added, “It would be sinful to continue with a building that is not sustainable.”    

While praising the tireless effort of maintenance and housekeeping department members, the trio noted most people do not realize what the congregation has to deal with, on a daily basis, in their former home.    

“There were the leaking roofs and pipes that could not be replaced; the lack of a sprinkler system in the area where our most vulnerable lived,” Boisvert said, in illustrating the challenges.  

O’Regan noted they explored myriad ideas for using the building.    

“We would end up running it and it would continue to consume all our energy,” she said of those possibilities.

The process    

As for the continuing process, one spearheaded by Dexter Construction, Boisvert said they expect to have the 1960s section of the motherhouse torn down by Christmas, with work on the rest of the building to begin after the holidays.     

She reiterated the Marthas’ focus on the importance of opting for deconstruction, rather than demolition.    

“We are delighted with the company, which has guaranteed to keep at least 85 per cent [of waste] out of the landfill during the deconstruction,” Boisvert noted.    

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When the numbers were last crunched, in October, approximately 40 metric tonnes of wood and 30 tonnes of metal made its way to the recycling depot.    

She explained they have been diligent in reusing and recycling, as much as possible, with a focus on “architectural salvage.”    

Doors, trim, flooring, paneling, light fixtures and windows have gone to a variety of groups and organizations, including Habitat for Humanity.    

Boisvert noted the Antigonish CACL received some of the salvaged “gorgeous” wood for their shop.    

“Implosion would not have been as expensive, but we wanted to benefit as many people as we can,” she said.

‘Living legacy’    

Along with deconstruction, the Marthas are planning for what will occupy that part of their 360-acre property.    

“We plan to take into account how we can create a living legacy protecting a green space for us and our friends to enjoy for many years to come,” Boisvert said.    

She noted the congregation has been talking with stakeholders, such as the Town of Antigonish and the Municipality of the County of Antigonish, about the future development.    

“Our hope is to capture the historic and religious significance of this site for not only us, but also the larger community, which we believe always felt welcome at Bethany,” Boisvert said.    

In keeping with the theme of reuse – not to mention maintaining a connection with its rich history – materials, such as brick, stone and porcelain will be crushed and used as fill for the basement where the building stood.    

“Maybe there is someone out there who knows,” O’Regan, said with a laugh, of the search for the cornerstone.    

If one is found, that along with brick from the 1920s section, lintels and sills, statues and the chapel’s tear drop gates will be part of the new creation.    

There is also the bell tower and steeple – once perched on the chapel – which has been maintained.    

“They get it, they understand,” O’Regan said, in commenting on the care workers took in removing that piece, adding “it meant a lot to them.”    

Considering the potential fragility of the six-ton tower, keeping it intact was no easy task.    

Boisvert said the goal for the new space will be “to highlight our Martha story,” through options, such as interpretive panels and other landmarks.    

There will also be an area for contemplative walking and viewing.     

“It was our gift to have been able to view the magnificent beauty over the years and now we want to find a way to share that view with everyone,” she added.    

Bringing down the chapel came nine months after the Marthas moved to their new home, created through collaboration with Shannex, a Nova Scotia-based company that constructs and operates care facilities.    

Mary’s Court includes 25 licensed long-term care beds, while Martha Place offers 19 assisted-living and 42 independent suites, including 18 suites designated for congregation members.   

“We are still with you in prayer, but just in a new location,” Boisvert said.    

Their new home also includes a smaller-scale place of worship, one that includes stained glass windows from the former chapel.    

“We want people to feel welcome in our new space,” Boisvert said.    

She added the response has been heartwarming.    

“So many are saying ‘you brought the spirit with you,’” she said.

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