Nfld. & Labrador

St. Bon's a condominium? Private developers circling as committee scrambles to raise money

A new committee formed to purchase the Basilica of St. John the Baptist complex in St. John's is scrambling to raise money as private developers snoop around ahead of bid deadline.

Basilica complex a centerpiece of historic sell-off of Catholic church properties in St. John's

Rob Blackie is chairman of the board of governors of St. Bonaventure's College independent school in St. John's. He's also a member of a joint committee that is preparing a bid on the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and a collection of other historic buildings, including St. Bon's. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A committee formed to attempt a purchase the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist complex in St. John's is scrambling to raise money as private developers snoop around ahead of a crucial bid deadline next week.

The committee comprises the Basilica Heritage Foundation, St. Bonaventure's College and the St. Bon's Forum, and it intends to submit a bid on the so-called Basilica Block. The deadline for bids is Thursday.

"Just the day before yesterday there was a group of Toronto developers came to town and knocked on the door of the school to look around because they have a stated interest of buying it and turning it into condominiums," Rob Blackie, chairman of the St. Bonaventure's College independent school board of governors and a member of the new joint bid committee, told CBC News on Friday.

St. Bonaventure's College has been part of the educational landscape in the City of St. John's for nearly 170 years. St. Bon's, as it's known, is one of many buildings up for sale as the insolvent Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's attempts to settle historical abuse claims related to the former Mount Cashel orphanage. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

The committee hopes to purchase the complex and preserve its history, culture and institutions, but Blackie admitted there's a sense of dread and uncertainty about the process.

"Our fear, or our theoretical fear, has sort of manifested itself as being real," Blackie said of the out-of-province developers he said visited the school this week.

"Worst-case scenario is that we fail, and that the Toronto developers who are looking at this end up owning it and turning it into something that it's not."

Blackie said the committee has received a broad range of support, from the smallest hand-delivered cash donations to a person's life savings.

He won't say how much they've raised, or how much they'll bid, because such information would give competing bidders an advantage. But with deep-pocketed developers circling, Blackie said, every possible dollar is needed.

"The major concerns for us is we don't really have a sense of what the scale of competition is. So it's really on us to determine what is the appropriate price and the amount we can raise in a really tight period of time."

But with the possibility of competing bids, and a process that favours those who put the most money on the table, Blackie said it's possible one of this province's most iconic collections of public architecture could end up in private hands.

"We either succeed or we don't, and if we don't it's not just the buildings and the land we run the risk of losing, it's really the institutions that are in the buildings that we fear will be lost in the process," he said.

The Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is one of the most recognizable and historic buildings in St. John's. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

The archdiocese, previously one of the most powerful and influential institutions in the province, is liquidating all its assets — including churches, parish halls and rectories — under a court-supervised insolvency process. It's part of an effort by the archdiocese to raise money to compensate dozens of survivors of abuse at the former Mount Cashel orphanage.

It's a process that's open to anyone willing to come up with a 15 per cent down payment, with the full amount due by mid-June.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: Terry.Roberts@cbc.ca.

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