By Doug Hallett
City hall’s top heritage official hopes to tour the rectory on Catholic Hill today (Jan. 10) to get a better idea of what the future might hold for the 1850s building, which church officials are eyeing for possible demolition.
“I am keen to find out what the options are for heritage preservation of that building,” said senior heritage planner Stephen Robinson.
He was planning to meet for the first time with the pastor of Church of Our Lady, Father Dennis Noon, who lives in the rectory next to the landmark church.
The aim of today’s informal meeting is to “do what I can do, diplomatically, to work towards some sort of solution” for the future of the rectory, Robinson said in an interview Tuesday. Noon said the five-storey rectory is in bad condition. It would be cheaper to knock it down and build a smaller house, perhaps two storeys, for the church’s clergy than to try to fix the building, he said Tuesday.
Asked whether this would mean demolishing the entire rectory building, Noon replied, “I would think so, yes.”
Any decision to apply to the city for a demolition permit would be made by the Diocese of Hamilton after it gets a recommendation from the Church of Our Lady’s building committee, Noon said in an interview.
“Hopefully, sometime this year we’ll come to a decision one way or the other what we are going to do,” said Noon.
Paul Ross, a member and former longtime chair of Heritage Guelph, said the rectory is “an important building” in the city.
“It frames the Church of Our Lady,” along with the former Loretto convent on the other side of the church, which is now home to the Guelph Civic Museum, he said. “It would be a shame if it got demolished.”
Catholic Hill is probably the city’s most historically significant site, and it’s what the eyes of residents and visitors alike are most drawn to in Guelph, Ross said in an interview. “It is kind of synonymous with the city, as well as being a very important part of its heritage.”
Noon questioned the notion that the rectory helps frame the view of Church of Our Lady.
“Most of the year you can’t see” the rectory, because the view is blocked by tree foliage, he said. “So I don’t get this bookend idea.”
And in any event, he said, the rectory doesn’t “match” the building on the other side of the church, given that the former convent building now has an exterior glass add-on that was part of the renovations to create the museum.
The rectory was built from local limestone, but the stone has been covered with stucco for decades.
A number of buildings on Catholic Hill are listed on the city’s official heritage registry, including the rectory, the church, the former convent and the former St. Agnes school for girls, Robinson said.
This sort of listing means the city has to be given extra notice – 60 days in all – of intention to demolish, which provides more time for city hall to consider seeking designation under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Noon, who has been Church of Our Lady’s pastor since 2003, said he lives in the rectory with three other clergy. Their offices are also located in the building.
An engineering firm that assessed the building about three years ago found that the front of the building “is sinking from its age,” Noon said.
As well, the plumbing, electrical and heating systems are all in bad shape. The top two floors have been closed off for years, largely because the hot-water heating system can no longer get heat up to them, he said.
It has been estimated it would cost $1 million to bring the building up to the current standards of the Ontario Building Code, Noon said.
The building could be restored, “but at great cost,” he said.
“Look at what it cost the city to do the museum (in the Loretto convent). We don’t have that kind of money,” he said. “Our focus has to be on fixing the church. That is costing us millions.”
Robinson said the city’s conversion of the Loretto building and the recent repairs to the landmark church provide good examples of what can be done to save heritage buildings. The Church of Our Lady, he noted, “is looking more glorious every day.”