After learning the insurance company won`t cover the costs to replace a collapsed ceiling, St. Andrews Presbyterian is scrambling to find money to pay for the repairs themselves.

Two large pieces of the sanctuary ceiling at the church collapsed last summer.

Minister Joyce Yanishewski said the building's designation as a historic property poses additional challenges.

Joyce Yanishewski

St. Andrew's Presbyterian minister Joyce Yanishewski says the building's designation as a historic property poses additional challenges when it comes to repairs. (Matt Prokopchuk/CBC)

“We have to repair it with original materials, if they're available, if they're safe,” she said.

“In our case, there [are] slight traces of asbestos within the plaster material in one of the layers, but we can't replace with that same material, [and] don't want to replace with that same material.”

Because of the health risks, heritage officials in Thunder Bay say different materials can be used, as long as they maintain the same look as the original ceiling.

Yanishewski said there`s no firm price tag yet, but repairs won`t be cheap.

“I am sort of believing that it's going to be within the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is not a small fix.”

Cause of collapse undetermined

Insurance denied the church's claim last month because it's not clear what caused the collapse, she noted.

The chair of Thunder Bay's Heritage Advisory Committee said unexplained failures happen in older buildings.

“You see it because … the age of the buildings, the older construction methodologies are different from modern construction methods, and over time buildings deteriorate,” Andrew Cotter said.

The heritage committee brought in a Thunder Bay architectural firm to look at the site, but its assessors couldn`t find a conclusive reason for the collapse.

St. Andrews Presbyterian church, thunder bay

St. Andrews Presbyterian must replace a collapsed ceiling, after learning the insurance company won`t cover it. (Matt Prokopchuk/CBC)

Cotter said there`s been vibrations near the church caused by construction work at the new court house and city hall, as well as some ice damming on the building. It`s also over 100 years old.

Yanishewski said said doesn’t think that “we`re ever actually going to know the cause, because there`s just too many factors that could have been involved ... but we`re going to come up with some sort of mechanism to at least be able to say `this is safe and we`re going to fix it in a safe manner that it should be able to hold up for another 100 years’."

Congregation ‘very faithful’

Yanishewski said she hopes the sanctuary will be back in use soon.

“It'd be beautiful to be in there by Easter wouldn't it?  If not then, summertime would be great.”

In the meantime, the congregation has been taking part in services held in the church hall — something Yanishewski calls a blessing.

“We're sitting very close to one another now. We can't spread ourselves out within the entire sanctuary.”

She noted that some people “have chosen not to come until the sanctuary is fixed because that's their home, that's where they worship …  but I think the majority have been standing close by and very faithful."

The entire ceiling of the church has to be replaced for safety reasons, even though only two sections have fallen.

To help pay for the repairs, a restoration fund has been established. An anonymous donation of $15,000 has already come in.

Yanishewski said some foundations in the community are looking into how they can help. A community appeal is also in the works.

"There's so many people that have a connection to this congregation, or at least to this building, because somebody they loved and know has been married here, or they've had children baptized here. Even though they're not coming regularly anymore, there's a lot of connection within the community to this church."

The church hasn’t ruled out the possibility of borrowing money, Yanishewski added.