Nfld. & Labrador

St. Gabriel's Hall in Marystown is up for sale, and the group that runs it wants to buy it

A volunteer group in Marystown has started a fundraiser to raise money to buy St. Gabriel's Hall, a community centre they operate, as the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation sells church properties to compensate Mount Cashel abuse victims.

'It's not the diocese's to sell,' says chair of non-profit group launching fundraising campaign

St. Gabriel's Hall in Marystown was built 107 years ago. The former parish hall houses a theatre, conference room, music school, café and veterans’ memorial. (Submitted by John Baker)

As the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation continues to sell church properties to compensate abuse victims, the volunteer group that runs St. Gabriel's Hall in Marystown has launched a fundraiser to buy the building they've spent years caring for.

John Baker, chairperson of the group that runs St. Gabriel's Hall — a former parish hall and 107-year-old heritage building — says the hall isn't the church's to sell because the building was built by people from Marystown and surrounding communities over a century ago. 

"I personally feel that this property shouldn't go for sale. I personally feel that it's not the diocese's to sell," Baker told CBC News on Wednesday.

St. Gabriel's Hall operates as a community gathering place, housing a theatre, conference room, music school, café and veterans' memorial. 

The Catholic church has been held liable by the Supreme Court for abuse that happened at the Mount Cashel orphanage in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. 

In July the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador approved the sale of 43 Roman Catholic church properties in the St. John's area, including the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, to raise money to compensate the abuse victims. 

Church properties elsewhere on the Avalon and Burin peninsulas are now going though the same process.

The veterans' room at St. Gabriel's Hall is a space devoted to remembering people from the area who served in war and peacekeeping efforts. (Submitted by John Baker)

Just shy of 20 years ago, Baker said, the building was closed and was unheated for two years. In 2006, he said a group of volunteers formed a committee and negotiated with the church to take over the hall and restore it. 

"It was practically given to us by the Episcopal Corporation. It was already agreed to by the Episcopal Corporation and the parish council in Marystown that we could have this building for a dollar," he said.

However, that sale never materialized and the non-profit organization ended up entering into a long-term lease of the building, until 2035, to get funding from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and the provincial government to renovate it.

He said the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation and local church parish didn't contribute money to the renovations.

Ville Marie Theatre at St. Gabriel's Hall, which can seat 400, was used to house members of the military when they were in Marystown to build a trail in the community. (Submitted by John Baker)

"We basically restored the building to its original," he said, adding they had the hall designated a municipal heritage building and won a Manning award from the lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador for their restoration work.

"We've spent excessive amounts of money, of our own money," he said. 

Now as the building faces an uncertain future, Baker said it's not clear how much the building will be appraised for or how much they may have to spend to try and buy it back.

The group has set a fundraising goal of $250,000 in a GoFundMe campaign.

"We're in the fog in terms of what the sale of the property potentially could be. We have nothing in Marystown or on the Burin Peninsula to relate to in terms of doing a comparative value for St. Gabriel's Hall." 

If they are not successful bidders on the property, Baker says, they hope their long-term lease will be honoured, and they have a lawyer to help them with legal issues and to figure out how their lease fits into the sale of the property.

In the meantime, Baker says the situation has left people feeling sour.

"We were very disillusioned, disappointed and frustrated," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show