A converted church on the Magdalen Islands is becoming a cultural hub for the community
Village of Havre-Aubert lost its church, but gained a space for local and visiting artists
With its spire and cross intact, the Notre-Dame-de-la-Visitation church in the village of Havre-Aubert on Quebec's Magdalen Islands still looks like a place of worship from the outside.
But any visitor who steps inside quickly notices that the space has taken on a new, different life.
The high, pitched ceiling and many rows of pews date from the building's original use as a space for community worship.
But the entire front of the church has been turned into a stage, with lighting rigs running up the walls.
It's part of the church's conversion into a performance and rehearsal space for circus acts, as well as music and dance shows.
A labour of love
That conversion began last spring after the community accepted Jeannot Painchaud's proposal to make a place for collaboration in his hometown, to be used by local and visiting artists.
Painchaud is an acrobat and co-founder of the Montreal circus company Cirque Eloize. He saw an opportunity while visiting home, when he was staying in a house right next to the church and learned it was for sale.
"The community was looking for a project to convert the church, and during the pandemic I'd been questioning where to take my life," he said. "The timing was exactly right."
The space is now known as La Seine, and while Painchaud mostly runs it from Montreal, technical director Gaétan Bouffard remains on site.
Bouffard is another islander who had long lived in Montreal, working as a sound engineer with Cirque du Soleil and the Montreal Jazz Festival. This project gave him a chance to move back home.
"[It's] going to be a pretty, pretty nice hub for the culture in Magdalen Islands," said Bouffard, adding that being a part of it was "an opportunity that I couldn't let go."
A space that works for artists
On a day that CBC visited the church, two circus artists were inside, rehearsing synchronized dance movements on the raised stage while their show's director, Catherine Archambault, watched from the floor.
Archambault had travelled from her home in Quebec City to make use of this space, and she says it was worth it, despite the two-hour flight.
"All the spaces [for] circus are full, because now all the artists are doing their projects again," she said, noting that finding an affordable, large space for a circus residency in the city is nearly impossible.
Her past professional relationship with Painchaud gave her the inside track on the newly opened facility, and she was delighted to create her show there.
One of many church conversions
This is just one of many churches across the province whose dwindling congregations have left them in need of a new life.
Bouffard knows that losing its church can be hard on a community, but he prefers to focus on what locals are gaining with La Seine.
"A lot of them were scared to lose a place where they gathered…. But it's definitely not the case because we want it to be accessible to the community again," he said.
"It's just going to be another way of coming to the church."
La Seine's inaugural concert was in July. A quartet of classical musicians, including Montreal flutist Nadia Labrie, performed for an audience of locals.
Labrie, as Painchaud's wife and a performing artist herself, is close to the project. She is sure the arts bring something rich and nourishing to any community, and especially one whose population has been declining.
"To give that concert, for me, it was something very, very deep, emotional," she said.
"I think it will be a nice opportunity to have the heart of Havre-Aubert beating again."