VICTORIA MINES – Canadian Army engineers are stepping up to save the ruined historic St. Alphonsus church in Victoria Mines from near-certain demolition as part of a major military exercise in Cape Breton.
Soldiers from the 4 Engineers Support Regiment are restoring the church’s decaying roof and crumbling bell tower as part of Exercise Nihilo Sapper 2017, an annual test of their combat engineering skills needed in conflict or disaster zones.
“From the inside we can see there’s a lot of damage and being up on there and looking, it’s old and taken a lot of weather and there’s masonry work and concrete damage,” said Master Cpl. Michael Galbiati-Bourassa.
On top of that, a tree has grown and sprouted leaves in the bell tower, which is also infested by pigeons.
A walk through the 101-year-old church’s main hall revealed a churned-up floor and walls ruined by water and rising damp.
But the army, working with the Stone Church Restoration Society, says that restoring such buildings is great practice for when they deploy in disaster or combat zones.
While in-theatre, army engineers have three choices: build their own base, use existing military facilities, or take over civilian buildings. Using the last two options often requires engineers to repair damaged structures and/or upgrade them to Canadian standards.
Canada’s Disaster Assistance Response Team often calls on the army’s services to restore damaged structures in disaster zones.
“This is a perfect example of things we would do in real-time environments,” said Galbiati-Bourassa.
He also appreciated his chance to help the local community.
“It’s a great way for us to put our face out there and say ‘we’re here to help’.”
However, the project has faced some delays as the Diocese of Antigonish, who owns the church, are still working through some land use agreement issues that will let the army start work.
“There are still some ‘Ts’ to be crossed and ‘I’s’ to be dotted so that we can make sure that everything is above board as we continue on with this project,” said Captain Jamie Tobin.
Commonly known as the ‘Stone Church’, St. Alphonsus was first built in 1916 and soon became known as one of Cape Breton’s most picturesque churches, according to the National Trust for Canada.
However, the church was closed by the Diocese of Antigonish in 2007 after it suffered decay, which has only worsened in the years since.
The derelict church was facing demolition before the army stepped in with a plan to fix it.