Her family helped build this New Richmond church — now she must say goodbye

·5 min read

Joan Dow remembers walking into St. Mary Magdalene church for the first time, after her family moved to New Richmond, Que., and helped build the small Anglican church in 1966.

''It was the greatest thrill of my life I think," said Dow, 90.

Now, with only four members left in the congregation, the parishioners had to make the wrenching decision to sell the building to a neighbouring farmer.

For Dow, it is hard to accept.

"Nothing meant as much to me as St. Mary Magdalene's. It was the love of my life."

Dow's daughter Cynthia, would have liked a nice reception in the yard of the church to mark its final service.

But with public gatherings off the table this summer, the deconsecration ceremony will be attended by the last handful of parishioners.

"It will only be us — and that's OK — that's the way it has to be," said Cynthia Dow, sitting in one of the pews of the church.

Driving into New Richmond, on the Gaspé's Chaleur Bay, the church's rust-coloured wooden exterior is hidden behind the trees on Campbell Road, named after Harry Campbell who donated the land in the 1960s.

After the Second World War, the Dow family was among several that moved to New Richmond from nearby Port-Daniel for work.

There was no Anglican church at the time, so services were held in the town hall or beside Joan's brother's store, sometimes even in the Dow family's basement.

But the opening of the Consolidated Bathurst pulp and paper mill in 1965 brought people "from around the world" to New Richmond, Dow says, and with them, the resources needed to build an actual church.

Julia Page/CBC
Julia Page/CBC

Dow remembers walking through the front door for the first service on Dec. 18, 1966, a few days before Christmas.

That day, 56 people filled the wooden pews donated from a torn-down church in the Saguenay, Dow said, reading from her copious notes.

"I'll never forget it. People were very happy about the whole thing. It was a wonderful feeling."

Slow decline

St. Mary Magdalene, although somewhat removed from the town centre, was central to the community, Dow says, with a lively Sunday school and full pews most Sundays.

"The people here — even when they left, when the mill closed in 2005 — they hated leaving St. Mary Magdalene's."

The closure of the mill that year accelerated the exodus of the town's English-speaking population.

In the 2001 census, 480 people in the town of nearly 4,000 recorded English as their mother tongue. Fifteen years later, that number was less than half of that, only 180.

Paired with the slow decline of religion in Quebec, the shrinking English community meant St. Mary Magdalene saw fewer and fewer members showing up over the years, making it impossible to pay for its upkeep.

"In those days people went to church. It's not like nowadays," said Joan Dow. "People were very faithful."

Marking the end

In the three years he's spent as priest for the ministry of New Carlisle and Chaleur Bay, the Reverend Joshua Paetkau has learned to say he is driving "up the coast" to New Richmond, when driving upstream along the bay.

He's also observed how the closure of the mill defined the community.

Julia Page/CBC
Julia Page/CBC

"There's such a strong sense of history and place here on the coast, there's a pride to being from the Gaspé," said Paetkau.

That connection the rivers and to the land "makes the closure of a church really hard because there's memory here," Paetkau said. "And it connects the community that started this church."

As a priest, Paetkau would not normally be the one presiding over the upcoming deconsecration ceremony. That service is usually reserved for the bishop or the vicar general.

But like so many other things, COVID-19 has made that impossible — and Paetkau has been authorized to perform the service, one he's given a lot of thought to.

"In a way it's like a funeral," Paetkau said. "There's a sadness, of putting to rest. This is the end of something."

For Joan Dow, thinking of that last service which will happen over the course of the summer seems too surreal to put into words.

"I don't know," Dow said, her voice trailing off. "I live for the church."

Julia Page/CBC
Julia Page/CBC

It's where she taught Sunday school, where her children were confirmed, some married, and younger generations were baptized.

While raising her four children, Dow also worked with the local school board. "But nothing meant as much to me as St-Mary Magdalene's. It was the love of my life."

For her daughter Cynthia, those family memories are also intertwined within the walls of the modest, simple building.

She'll likely attend mass in New Carlisle from time to time, but is also counting on Father Paetkau to drive up to New Richmond, given her mother's age, even if it means going back to holding the service in a home basement.

Julia Page/CBC
Julia Page/CBC

"A church is not a building, a church is a collection of people who want to worship together, and we'll still be doing that," Cynthia said.

She and her mother find some comfort knowing the church won't be torn down and will be sold to a neighbouring farm owner.

"The lord makes apples, I guess," said Joan smiling.

"But it's a heartbreaking affair, and at my age, it's easy to break my heart."