Opinion- A Postscript to the Demolition of the Deschâtelets Building Chapel

PETER FROOD

Ottawa City Council’s recent decision to pass a bylaw permitting both the French Catholic school board to locate L’École Au Coeur d’Ottawa within the Deschâtelets Building, paving the way for other community benefits at the historic site and the demolition of the chapel wing of Deschâtelets is, on balance, a good decision.

Old Ottawa East (OOE) gets an elementary school, a shared-use gym along with a community centre and affordable seniors housing on the upper floors. The Regional Group offloads a white elephant that has served its purpose for marketing and approval processes, and local politicians have announcements that will serve them well in the future.

But does this decision lead to a great project? No, not at all. Why? Because it sacrifices the chapel wing of the Deschâtelets Building, a part of the original municipal heritage designation. It is now clear that heritage designations are contingent and dependent upon the narrowly defined interests of key players. The relative ease with which the Chapel has been traded off here in OOE is in marked contrast to the tenacious debate about the design of the proposed addition to the Chateau Laurier hotel. In response to sustained pressure, the Chateau Laurier design team finally produced a design concept that shows greater respect for the heritage value and character of the landmark hotel and its surrounding landscape.

The Austin Doran Hall, formerly the Convent chapel is, one two meeting spaces in The Mount Community Centre in Peterborough. Photo Supplied

The Austin Doran Hall, formerly the Convent chapel is, one two meeting spaces in The Mount Community Centre in Peterborough. Photo Supplied

As the chapel wing turns to dust destined for landfill, the biggest loser is the community heritage of Old Ottawa East. Part of an iconic structure in the community, and its related history, will be lost to future generations. The winner is the Regional Group. Not only will the developer offload a liability, but it has also gained another site for development.

The sacrifice of the Chapel is unnecessary. There are examples in other communities where former religious properties have been adapted to strengthen social support facilities within their community. The key to success in these circumstances is a community champion group with vision, imagination and an ability to act.

The Mount Community Centre (MCC) in Peterborough, Ontario shows what can be done. Mount St. Joseph served as the motherhouse convent and church for the Sisters of St. Joseph for over 100 years. In 2006, they sold the site, comprised of buildings and 10 acres of land in a residential area near the Peterborough city core, to a developer. Three years later, the property was acquired by the Peterborough Poverty Reduction Network (PPRN) to develop, through adaptive reuse, a social innovation hub.

Working within the constraints of its municipal heritage designation, the MCC now includes 63 units of affordable housing; a community kitchen addressing food security issues as well as foodservice training and Meals on Wheels food preparation; rental accommodation for organizations like the Victoria Order of Nurses, a preschool/kindergarten, small businesses and environmental organizations; space for faith-based group offices and services; and event space for various performances and functions. On the surrounding grounds, there is a large community garden that is spinning off micro-enterprises. The MCC has also been used as a film location. Future plans include the possible development of two areas for additional mixed-income social housing.

Alas, in Old Ottawa East, no community champion stepped up to use the orphaned space creatively.

During the Council discussions, Councillor Shawn Menard succeeded in modifying the bylaw to include additional historical and documentary research for the Deschâtelets Building and the Oblats order to support the commemoration of the chapel wing. This step is a bit like an obituary, but it will preserve a memory of place. A related measure to maintain a legacy for the chapel wing would be to deconstruct rather than demolish the wing so that the building materials are available to be used as part of the commemoration and for the adaptive reuse of the Deschâtelets Building. Other harvested materials could be used as architectural features throughout the site and in the community. This strategy is aligned with current thinking by innovative heritage professionals concerned about heritage and other building waste in a circular economy. Actively mining heritage and other building materials would also contribute to Ottawa’s climate change strategies.

Bruised somewhat by this experience, Old Ottawa East, and our community association representatives, can perhaps think about what is next. The answer, I think, is the former Convent of The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on des Oblats Avenue.

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