Nfld. & Labrador

Heated debate over controversial annex plan for Anglican Cathedral

The City of St. John’s heard public concerns about the design and location of the proposed expansion of the Anglican Cathedral ahead of a council vote on the addition Aug. 5.

Concerns about location and modern design heard at public meeting

A public meeting was held at a historic St. John's church Thursday evening, to gauge public opinion on a proposed expansion. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

There was a mix of praise and condemnation from the church pews Thursday night at a public meeting to discuss a controversial proposed annex to the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. 

The City of St. John's held the meeting to gauge public opinion on the expansion plan ahead of a council vote on Aug. 5.

There were cheers and applause from some. Others expressed concern over building's the location and design. 

St. John's resident Kathleen Knowling worries her great-great-grandmother is buried in the cemetery outside the building. Although there is no public record, she wonders how many others lay underneath the ground.

"Makes me feel quite queasy," said the 91-year-old. "I think where they are resting after lives of horribly hard work and deprivation, that area should be respected."

St. John’s resident Kathleen Knowling believes her great, great grandmother is buried in the cemetery outside of Anglican Cathedral St. John the Baptist. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

She isn't the only one who believes there are people buried beneath the location of the proposed annex.

Church records show there were less than 4,600 people buried on the property, but there have been questions about whether that number is too low.

"I think the general public feels that the building would be quite inappropriate in this particular area," said Knowling.

According to the committee in charge of the expansion, five exploratory holes were dug around the proposed construction site and no human remains were found. 

The group also said that despite visible headstones in the far ends of the site,"most of the cemetery had been removed" back in 1885.

If city council does give the project the green light and human remains are found, project chair Paul Antle said proper measures will be taken to move those bodies out.

Members of the public were encouraged to write their thoughts on sticky notes for city councillors to review. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Parks Canada guidelines not being followed

Although the burial ground was one of the main concerns at the meeting, council will only be voting on the design of the annex.

A sketch of the addition shows a sleek, modern-looking building, covered in glass windows, with a metal roof and siding. 

That sketch drew criticism from people who feel the design doesn't match the aesthetic of historic downtown St. John's.

St. John's City Coun. Maggie Burton has said the sketch makes the building look larger than it is, and a panel recommended design changes to better match the cathedral's gothic style.

The proposed Anglican Cathedral extension. (Submitted)

Meanwhile, Heather MacLellen, a former Parks Canada superintendent who managed national historic sites in the province, said the pictured design of the proposed addition goes directly against a number of guidelines set out by Parks Canada. 

She said those guidelines say every effort should be made to not introduce development — especially modern development — in national, historically significant areas, and development plans should consider every option.

"It's a big price to pay in a historic place when you start to add new [buildings], and you start to devalue the historic place," MacLellen said.

She said once one church moves toward more modern architecture, there is not much stopping others from doing the same, which could take away the historic feel of an area. 

"This is serious," she said. "[It] could have significant ramifications for the long term of our city."

Support for annex

Antle said the church needs to expand.

"Not only does the church need to find ways to grow, we need to find ways to extend our reach into the community," he said.

The new building will include the bishop's office and staff, a new resource centre, and a small café. 

Paul Antle, chair of the project, said the congregation needs the extra space in order to better provide for the community. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Antle said it's important to build something that will last for a long time.

"We have built modern buildings over historic areas, so that is not new," he said. "What we are doing with the modern design is not meant to compete with the gothic design of the cathedral itself," he said.

His thoughts were echoed by fellow parishioner Hugh Donnan, who said at the end of the day, it's not about the building but the actions which come out of it.

"The building is really important for worship and it's a beautiful place but it's what the congregation of the people here are able to do, to make an impact on the community," he said.

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