This historic Newfoundland church is getting a second act — as a brewery

Over 100 years after it was first consecrated in Harbour Grace, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is poised to transition into a brewery.

Yellowbelly Brewery team restoring century-old Harbour Grace church

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which has lain dormant since 2014, is poised to become a brewery. (CBC Archives)

When the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Harbour Grace held its last mass in 2014, there was fear the historic building would fall into disarray, but something new is brewing in town.

Craig Flynn and Brenda O'Reilly, owners of Yellowbelly Brewery and O'Reilly's Irish Pub in St. John's, have finalized a deal to take control of the historic century-old Catholic church and turn it into a brewery, beer garden, restaurant, hotel and spa.

If that sounds ambitious — well, that's the point.

"We see this as, you know, one of these projects that's going to be … an international destination that people from all over the world are interested in going to, and you know, that again puts Newfoundland on the map," said Flynn on Saturday.

Craig Flynn and Brenda O'Reilly cut the ribbon at the grand opening of a new Yellowbelly location at the St. John's International Airport earlier this year. (Brenda O'Reilly/Twitter)

High price tag for repairs

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Grand Falls was forced to shutter the church in 2014 after it was determined the cathedral would need $9 million in restoration work to stay open.

Even the most successful Chase the Ace in the province hasn't been able to come up with that kind of money, and the diocese decided to look for new uses to preserve the historic building.

A recent photo of the interior of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Flynn says he will ensure the heritage and history of the building as a Catholic church is honoured in the restoration. (Submitted by Craig Flynn)

But after four years of the cathedral sitting empty, Grand Falls Bishop Tony Daniels worried the high cost would scare prospective buyers away and leave the building to decline.

"We weren't sure if we would ever find somebody coming forward to say, 'We would like to restore the church and give it a new purpose which respects its history and will be a great contribution to the community,'" said Daniels.

A file photo of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in 1981. The church was consecrated in 1892 (CBC Archives)

"So we were thrilled when Brenda and Craig came forward after we solicited expressions of interest and told us what their plans were and we met with our committee. They said that those plans fit within that framework and so we were very, very happy."

Beer at church a natural fit

While it might seem odd at first to see a place of worship transition into more of a place to party, Daniels said the community aspects of the plan fit in with his vision for the space.

"In a lot of ways, it simply reflects what is happening in our world today. We need places for community to meet, we need places for concerts, and for … demonstrations of the great artistic heritage that is of Newfoundland."

Beer isn't a bad fit for an old cathedral, says Bishop Tony Daniels. (Yellowbelly Brewery/Twitter)

After the first cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1889, efforts to build the current building on the same site began shortly after, and the church was officially consecrated in 1892.

The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador describes the building on its website as a "rubble-wall cathedral that was built in a gothic style with lancet windows and two tower spires," with the interior featuring "high-vaulted plaster ceilings through the nave, transepts and chancel." 

Flynn and O'Reilly restored this building on Water Street when opening Yellowbelly Brewery. (Yellowbelly Brewery/Facebook)

Extensive repair and restoration work is needed before Flynn and O'Reilly can open their business, but the pair have past experience through their renovation of the Yellowbelly brewery building in St. John's.

When the brewery opens, it will be part of the growing wave of craft beer breweries in rural Newfoundland,.

Businesses in places like Dildo, Twillingate and Port Rexton have already found success in the field. 

Up to 100 new jobs

According to the 2016 census, 2,995 people live in Harbour Grace, which is located about an hour away from St. John's. 

Flynn says that by the time the brewery opens, he expects to employ 20 workers, with many of the hires coming from town.

"It is going to be a sort of a multi-tier project … we're gonna start off with the brewery and the taphouse, and a beer garden, and eventually we're going to build on to do the hotel."

The massive cathedral looms over Harbour Grace as one of the town's biggest landmarks. (CBC Archives)

By the time the hotel and spa are complete, he sees that number ballooning to around 100 jobs.

"We see a lot of potential in the overall community and we're very, very excited to be able to try to pull off a project like this," he said.

Restoration work is slated to begin in early 2019, said Flynn, and the brewery and beer garden are expected to be ready by the summer of 2020.

The beer garden may open for a limited number of events in the summer of 2019 too, he said.

"In order for rural Newfoundland to survive, it's going to need a lot of these not just ...  breweries but micro industries, whether it's fishing, whether it's you know manufacturing, or whether it's for us a brewery and a tourist destination," said Flynn.

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About the Author

Andrew Sampson

Andrew Sampson is a journalist with CBC News in St. John's.