Another church in peril 

Patricia Lavoie 

What price cultural, historic and religious heritage? This question is at the heart of discussions in Saint-Étienne-de-Bolton about the fate of the almost 150-year-old Église Saint-Étienne. In April of 2021 the Sherbrooke Diocese and the Notre-Dame de Mont- Carmel Parish Council announced their intention to divest themselves of Église Saint-Étienne. Faced with this decision, the Municipal Council in Saint-Étienne requested a technical evaluation of the building to assess the physical condition of the church. Was the price of one dollar to acquire the church from the diocese worth it? 

Upon receipt of the report from the engineering firm Côté-Jean et Associés (Magog) the comité sur l’avenir de l’église and the comité centre communautaire held a meeting in May of this year. Despite recognizing the historic value of the church and their desire to preserve it, committee members were confronted with a two million dollar estimate simply to update the building to current construction codes, and this prior to any refitting of the structure to accommodate a new vocation such as a café, a library or a multi-purpose community hall. Not to mention the upkeep. It was determined that these costs could entail an increase in municipal taxes of approximately 15% over the next 20 years. 

Next steps for the municipality? To research potential financial support from the Conseil du Patrimoine religieux du Québec as well as from Développement économique de la MRC Memphrémagog. Seeking financial support is never an easy matter. David Auclair, mayor of Saint-Étienne, has already initiated contact. There are basically three options to be considered depending on eventual financing: purchase of the church in order to transform it; purchase of the church to demolish it and use the land for another purpose; allow the Parish Council to sell the church to a third party, to demolish it or to board it up for an indefinite period of time. 

It is not an easy decision. A recommendation has been made to the municipality to hire a neutral professional resource person to guide the community through what may well be a course of action spanning several years. Despite acknowledging the tremendous historic value of the church, several municipal councillors have expressed concern over what may eventually become a deep financial black hole. 

In Quebec over 500 religious heritage buildings have changed vocation since 2003. That number grows every year.