Parishioners upset archdiocese refuses to donate church sale proceeds to residential school survivors

Missy Fraser says St. Margaret Mary Church in Old Ottawa South was originally bought by the community and given to the archdiocese in trust, so now, the community should have a say in where the sale proceeds go. (Julie Ireton/CBC - image credit)
Missy Fraser says St. Margaret Mary Church in Old Ottawa South was originally bought by the community and given to the archdiocese in trust, so now, the community should have a say in where the sale proceeds go. (Julie Ireton/CBC - image credit)

Many of the important moments in Missy Fraser's life were celebrated at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Parish in Ottawa — from Sunday services to family funerals to her own wedding.

"It held a special place, because it was part of our family," said Fraser.

But since 2019, St. Margaret Mary has sat empty and now it's for sale. There's no price listed, but offers were to be considered on July 20, 2022.

About 70 congregants signed a letter to the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall asking that the proceeds of the sale, between $1.5 and $3 million, be directed toward reconciliation and residential school survivors, according to Fraser.

The group's first response from the archdiocese was the property had already been sold. In fact, officials later clarified the property had just been transferred to the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Ottawa.

According to Fraser, the archdiocese told the group of parishioners it has its own plans for residential school survivors and no proceeds of the sale of the church will go to survivors.

Avison Young
Avison Young

Church originally purchased by parishioners

It was the local Catholic community that originally bought the church almost 100 years ago.

"It was purchased in the 1920s, grassroots parishioners going door to door raising the money for it ... that church was transferred to the archdiocese in trust," said Fraser.

So members of the congregation felt they should have a say in the proceeds of the sale of the property now.

Fraser worries the church is trying to "liquidate to gain profit," noting the archdiocese isn't just ignoring the wishes of former members, but its history too.

"In the first instance, the church and the property is on unceded Algonquin Anishinābeg territory," said Fraser.

"We're now seeing this great human tragedy in residential schools. To not recognize that, to assume rezoning for condo units, we've skipped over some important things."

Separate funds for survivors

For its part, the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall said it has other plans to help Indigenous communities.

"We are doing different activities and consulting First Nations and meeting people about different projects that would be toward reconciliation," said Geneviève Bonin-Labelle, director of communications for the archdiocese.

"But our real estate is separate from Indigenous funds, so that's a decision the diocese has made."

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has pledged to put millions of dollars toward initiatives for residential school survivors.

The fund, registered as a charity in March, is accepting contributions and reviewing proposals for where money could go, the conference said.

The organization has also promised to provide public updates on the progress made toward the $30 million target, which it has pledged to reach by January 2027.

The Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall said it hasn't launched the campaign but it plans to contribute $1.2 million to that fund, but that money will be raised by community donations.

Julie Ireton/CBC
Julie Ireton/CBC

Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation

It's not the first time Catholic leaders have attempted to raise money for residential school survivors.

Catholic church entities signed on to raise $25 million under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2006, but less than $4 million was raised.

Former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, a survivor himself, said with the Pope's apology and visit to Canada this week, this time is different.

"There is considerably more pressure on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to do the right thing, which means raise the money they promised us," Fontaine said recently on CBC's The Current.

Last summer, a group called Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation started its own grassroots campaign and raised about $30,000.

It's been a difficult time to be a Catholic, according to Erin Kinsella, a member of the group.

"The God that I know is not a God of abuse. It's painful," said Kinsella. "I grew up in Saskatchewan. I had no idea that residential schools even existed."

The bishops have been inviting people in their dioceses to contribute financially, she said.

But Missy Fraser and others who attended St. Margaret Mary, believe communities have already contributed, and now it's the institution's turn to hand over proceeds as properties are sold.

"The archdiocese needs to start paying attention to the communities ... that are attached to the land that the church sits on. To not do that is to continue a pattern of assuming that things are yours that are not yours," said Fraser.