The old St. Vital Church in Battleford could be demolished next year if it doesn’t get funding.
Battleford town council decided to give a Jan. 3, 2020, deadline to community groups to develop a fundraising campaign to “preserve the church for the goal of repurposing it,” according to CAO John Enns-Wind’s report Monday.
Should no group come forward, according to Enns-Wind’s recommendation, administration would remove the church and preserve what parts could be salvaged.
A priest is buried beneath the church, and town administration would work with the nearby Oblates to recover the body and relocate it to the Oblate cemetery.
Old St. Vital Church was built in 1883, before the North West Rebellion. According to historian Richard Hiebert writing in the News-Optimist, “it is believed the Old St. Vital Church is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Saskatchewan.”
The church has been a town council agenda item over many years. In 2018, the Saskatchewan Land Surveyors Association expressed interest in setting up a museum in the old building. The association eventually set up a museum in the old Land Titles Building on Government Ridge.
According to information that came to a November 2018 town council meeting, costs to preserve the church would be $50,000.
But costs before occupying the building would come to $450,000 to $500,000.
The Battlefords North West Historical Society sent an email to council, hoping council would save the building from demolition. Last year, the Battleford and District Museum and Heritage Board voted to leave the church “in its present state.”
Enns-Wind disagreed, writing in his administrative report to council “the status quo poses a risk as an eye sore and attraction for vandals. The church as it is does not tell the story of its past.”
The National Trust for Canada placed the church on its Top 10 endangered places list earlier this year.
Reaction among councillors to Enns-Wind’s recommendation was mixed. Councillors Kevin Russell and Shelley Boutin-Gervais expressed doubt about the proposal.
“I can’t get my head around how we [give] something a heritage designation and then we can take it down,” Russell said.
The present set of issues regarding the church have been in the news since 2018 and Mayor Ames Leslie said, after Monday’s council meeting, the town didn’t get much feedback from residents on the matter.
Leslie said "if somebody is willing to help and … enough of a group is willing to come forward to help save it, I’m pretty sure council would be willing to support and even find a way to put some funds in it.”
But the ask from taxpayers as it is today, Leslie said, is too big.
At Monday’s meeting, Enns-Wind initially proposed a date of Oct. 15 for community groups to come up with a plan, but councillors thought the time frame of less than two months wouldn’t be sufficient. Jan. 3, 2020 was chosen as the new deadline.
Ultimately, councillors except Boutin-Gervais voted in favour of the recommendation.