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Effort renewed to save church

A former Exshaw resident is hoping to lead a renewed charge to save Exshaw’s Catholic church. But she needs help and, judging by the extent of the goal, lots of it.

A former Exshaw resident is hoping to lead a renewed charge to save Exshaw’s Catholic church. But she needs help and, judging by the extent of the goal, lots of it.

Laurie Lohmann-Court, a former MD of Bighorn councillor who moved from Exshaw to Stony Plain nine years ago, is willing to lead the community to make one more attempt to see if the original portion of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church, built in 1907 can be saved from demolition.

The church is the last building on what was once Exshaw’s main street, Portland Avenue, before the original town was bulldozed in the mid-1970s to make way for a large-scale expansion of the cement plant.

The question of saving the church came before the community once before when Christ the Redeemer Catholic School Division announced plans to move the 1967 chapel to Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy in Canmore.

At the time, according to Greg Birch, assistant municipal manager for the MD of Bighorn, a group of concerned residents came forward willing to work on a committee, but to find someone to lead the group proved to be a challenge given the size and nature of the task.

As a result, the MD declined a formal offer from Christ the Redeemer, which owns the buildings, to give the municipality the 1907 church.

The MD has issued a development permit, giving Christ the Redeemer permission to move the chapel this year. That permit also gives permission to demolish the 1907 church, which was decommissioned in 2002.

But before that happens, Lohmann-Court, who remembers attending church in that building, said she doesn’t want to see it demolished without at least making an effort to save the church.

“It’s the only building left on the old main street. I’m sure the other group did everything they could. I just wanted to see if there was anything else we could do,” she said Tuesday (Jan. 18). “I’m miles away to even help with things.”

At this point, Lohmann-Court is gathering information, with plans to talk to MD staff and councillors, Lafarge and Christ the Redeemer, to understand where the issue stands.

From there, the goal is to establish if anything can be done and what.

“Maybe there is nothing that can be done. Maybe they have done everything they could have. I just think it is just a shame. If there is anything I can do to help, it is still my hometown,” she said.

Birch said the MD has identified a possible location for the church where the garbage and recycling bins now stand at the top of Mt. Allen Drive a relatively short distance from where the current church site.

Restoration, however, would be expensive and would require a practical end use to make it worthwhile, he said. But in terms of use, Birch said the original group identified options as a community centre, library, museum or a non-denominational church, an idea that garnered the most amount of interest.

Also, after discussions with the province, an addition could be added to the church without hindering the heritage integrity of the building.

And according to Birch, an independent building inspection suggests that while some structural issues exist in the roof, floor and foundation, it could all be restored.

The church sits on Crown land leased by Lafarge and, according to provincial regulations, abandoned or unused buildings on leased Crown land have to be demolished and the land reclaimed.

According to a statement of significance, prepared for the MD by Heritage Collaborative Inc. in March 2009, the 1907 church has a significant heritage value given its association with early Exshaw and its development and with the 1974-75 plant expansion.

The MD is currently storing the wrought-iron gates made by Secundo Smaniotto that stood at the entrance of the church.

Lohmann-Court said she is hoping Exshaw – or Bow Valley residents – will come forward to help her and a core group that is already forming to work towards finding a solution for the church.

She can be reached through the Facebook site – Save the Original Exshaw Catholic Church as a Historical Building – or at 780-963-3248

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