Église Sainte-Marie: North America’s Largest Wooden Church Faces Demolition
Église Sainte-Marie Catholic church towers over the village of Church Point and Université Sainte-Anne (the province’s only francophone university) about midway between Digby and Yarmouth in Nova Scotia’s District of Clare. Following the 2019 Christmas Eve service, the large wooden church, with its richly ornamented interior, closed its doors and has stood empty ever since. A series of community-driven attempts at fundraising for the repair and reuse the church have failed, and demolition now appears imminent.
Erected in 1903-1905 by 1,500 Acadian Catholic volunteers from the Church Point area working under master carpenter Léo Melanson, it is the largest wooden church in North America, with 185 foot (56.4m) steeple and evocative French Romanesque Revival design. Forty tons of rocks were placed in the bottom of the steeple to act as ballast against the heavy winds regularly blowing off nearby St. Mary’s Bay. Many residents in the area could trace their descent from Acadian families who arrived in the area in 1769 from Massachusetts, having survived the 1755 Acadian Expulsion from Nova Scotia. The current Église Ste-Marie is the third church built on the site.
Emma Lang, Executive Director of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, underscores that Église Sainte-Marie tells the story of the Acadian community in the Church Point area, and was the centre of community life. “To lose it would be a local tragedy, a provincial tragedy, a national tragedy, and an international tragedy.”
In 2020, due to a repair deficit of $3,000,000 (including a leaky roof), the Catholic Archdiocese began accepting applications from parties interested in purchasing Église Sainte-Marie. Soon afterwards, the Archdiocese entered into an agreement with the “Société Édifice Sainte-Marie de La Pointe,” made up of local community members, that would have allowed the group to purchase the church for a nominal sum, but take on responsibility for its rehab and upkeep.
The arrival of the 2020 COVID pandemic delayed organizing and brought inflationary pressures that quickly doubled the original repair and upgrade estimates. The Société’s work was further hobbled when there was no uptake to their RFP for a detailed fund-raising strategy, and the absence of organizations willing to assume long-term responsibility for the building. Community capacity was stretched further when another historic church in the diocese – the large stone St. Bernard Church 10 kms north of Church Point – was deconsecrated and similarly faced sale or demolition. On November 8, 2022, the Société announced it was ceasing its efforts and disbanding.
In a strange twist, hope for Église Sainte-Marie was revived in April 2023 by the announcement an anonymous donor had come forward offering $10 million for the repair of the church. By October 2023 the funding had not materialized and the donor had vanished, leaving the Church Point community gutted. In August 2023, the historic St. Bernard Church was purchased from the Archdiocese by a not-for-profit group with plans for it to become a vibrant cultural space and key location for Acadian World Congress 2024 events. Eglise Sainte-Marie, meanwhile, was deconsecrated on November 24, 2023 and listed for sale on January 30, 2024. The future of this extraordinary heritage structure remains deeply uncertain.