An early Christmas gift arrived Nov. 30 for the people of Cumberland, P.E.I, a county municipality devastated by post-tropical storm Fiona in September 2022.
Around 30 members of the St. Martin of Tours Parish beheld the beloved steeple of their 155-year-old house of worship raised back to where it belongs: atop the red sandstone brick tower crafted by Irish-born mason-architect John Corbett in the late 1860s.
Fiona’s wrath did not topple the 2,250-kg white wooden steeple sheathed in metal. But neighbours noticed the church tower becoming loose and swaying back and forth during the storm. There was concern the steeple would blow right off the roof and twist away in the powerful gusts of wind.
While it did not fall, the supporting brickwork became so frayed that the parish leadership sensibly decided to remove the steeple from the tower and rest it on the front lawn, where it remained for over 14 months.
The right side of the roof was also ripped asunder by the storm. Rain poured into the chapel and caused extensive interior damage to the ceiling, walls, pews and carpet. Parish leadership decided to temporarily close the parish doors and suspend Masses until further notice.
“This was a significant blow to our community, as the Holy Eucharist serves as the cornerstone of our gatherings — a sacred time and place for us to come together and nurture our shared faith,” wrote Fr. Peter Wojakiewicz. “It represents the focal point of our faith and community life; without it, our sense of unity falters.”
Wojakiewicz arrived as the new administrator of St. Martin of Tours during the last month. He succeeds the now-retired Fr. Martin Carter as spiritual leader of the Good Shepherd Pastoral Unit, which includes St. Francis of Assisi Church in Cornwall and St. Anne’s Parish in Emyvale. Fr. Douglas MacDonald held this role during Fiona. He departed on medical leave this past January.
St. Martin of Tours churchgoers largely migrated to St. Francis of Assisi during the temporary closure.
Hope remained indomitable among the St. Martin of Tours faithful over an eventual homecoming. They will get their long-awaited prayer gloriously fulfilled on Christmas Eve, exactly 15 months after Fiona struck on Sept. 24, 2022. Before 5 p.m. Mass, the church bell will toll again. A tight-knit community of 110 congregants will joyously sing the beloved Christmas hymns and line up in reverence to receive Holy Communion in their religious home.
In the storm’s aftermath, parishioners pondered what a rebuilt St. Martin of Tours, majestically peering over the Northumberland Strait, would look like. Did it make sense to restore the steeple?
“Putting the steeple back up was a question because it is so high and so vulnerable when it comes to windstorms,” said parishioner and St. Martin of Tours spokesperson Carol Carragher.
“Some people were of the idea that we should not put the steeple back up, but there were a lot of community members that wanted the steeple back up. We stayed with it.”
Throughout the winter, spring and even early summer, Cumberland dwellers and some warm-season residents kept inquiring about the steeple’s fate. They would drive by the parish and see the structure lying on its side on the grass. This did not sit right with them. They resoundingly wanted it reinstalled. Some made substantial donations to ensure the job got done.
Contractors for FitzGerald and Snow bolted the steeple to a nearly 4,000-kg platform they built within the brick tower to ensure it did not move again. Under a sunny glow, Wojakiewicz led the crowd in The Lord’s Prayer after the boom raising the steeple put it back in place.
“We also kind of broke out it a bit of song,” said Carragher. “We did the Alleluia a couple of times so the workers could hear us clap and sing. It was kind of moving.”
The church reopens its doors on Christmas Eve, adorned with a new interior ceiling, painted walls, repaired pews and refurbished carpeting. Wojakiewicz is thankful to the parish’s insurance company, individual contributions from community members and well-wishers outside of Canada, as well as St. Francis of Assisi Church for generously hosting a spaghetti dinner fundraiser.
“This church is immensely significant for our community,” said Wojakiewicz. “I am overjoyed that we can once again partake in celebrations within its sacred walls. The restoration enhances the church’s beauty, making it an even more exquisite space for our gatherings. We eagerly anticipate the regular Sunday Masses and envision it as an ideal venue for celebrating marriage celebrations, baptisms or other significant liturgical events.”
There is a palpable sense that just like God the Father led the Holy Family to where they needed to be over 2,000 years ago, a humble stable in Bethlehem, His providence has led the St. Martin of Tours flock to where they belong: Back home.