Rebuild it in Chelsea, Quebec and they should come

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by admin on November 4, 2010

By Martti Lahtinen

Anybody going around saying, “necessity is the mother of invention,” has it wrong. It’s the other way around, and the Chelsea arts, culture and heritage co-operative in Chelsea, Quebec has it right.

The innovative group, with Manuela Texeira as its appointed leader, has signed an agreement to rent the Stephen’s Church rectory building for the bargain-basement sum of $1 per year, in which it plans to house the distinctive trappings that help define the community.

Bargain basements are one thing; the ground floor is another. So is the leaking roof, which necessity couldn’t repair. The church itself, with its inherent maintenance costs and worrisome dwindling collections, had no spillover cash to maintain and refurbish its annex, which was home to 12 priests since 1896, the year it was built.

Church wardens couldn’t even begin to consider a radical solution – tearing it down at a cost of $35,000 – but given the on-going deterioration, demolition because of public safety concerns lurked in the shadows as a sad but necessary option.

Then, invention in the form of the Chelsea arts co-op came knocking. When the $1-per-year deal lessened money concerns, the fix was in. Innovation has revived function, and it can work.

The rectory, which architecture aficionados might consider to be a landmark from the period, may simply be a fine old building to others and worth preserving – with the turret at its corner a turn-on for many. The rectory could be designated a heritage building – its restoration entaailing huge skilled labour costs – but it’s enough now to agree on its historic value.

Those who built the rectory did it doubtless in a spirit of uplifting, to house the spiritual leader of the St. Stephen’s congregation, which in the beginning took in both sides of the Gatineau River and served 130 families mostly of Irish descent. That pretty well covers “heritage.”

It was built by people who took pride in their skills. It was raised to stand forever and never see the day when a high-hoe would rumble in to rip down the walls – as long as the roof remained watertight and heat prevented the plumbing from freezing up.

There’s no shortage of innovative arts, culture and heritage people in Chelsea. They see the refurbished rectory as a depository for artifacts, a pictorial and documented history of the community, a museum – whatever – which could turn a profit and produce the cash flow to keep the heat and lights on.

To get to that point, the group will need the support of the community for parts and labour, given that the estimated cost of repairs will be $270,000. It will need a team of volunteers. It will challenge Chelsea to step up.

There’s a depth to volunteering that many have never plumbed, a tremendously powerful feel-good realm that satisfies an urge within people to help out. It’s basic in service work, when people must repair themselves.

One could look at Chelsea with the restorative effect in mind.  It’s a chance to regain some desperately-needed cohesion in community-challenged Chelsea. Arts, culture and heritage people, keep your finger on the rectory-restoration button.