‘We are present’

After four years of hard work, Girouxville parish nears completion of its new church stairs

It was a proud moment, on the first Sunday of October, when the church doors of Notre Dame de Lourdes in Girouxville were swung open and parishioners could enter and exit the church by its new stairs.

It was a moment a long time in the making. It comes after years of several setbacks and challenges, such as the pandemic, continual rising costs and strains within the parish community. But ultimately none of these factors could take away the determination of Girouxville’s parishioners, and – one step at a time – they have been steadily working towards building these new church stairs.

For Carmen Ewing, parishioner and head of the parish’s finance committee, these new stairs are a symbol of both presence and hope.

“I think it says, ‘We’re here; we are present, and we’re staying,” she said. “To me it says there’s a future for our parish. We may be small, but we’re going to be mighty. We’re going to keep our church going. Some Sundays, I’m surprised to see young people and young families, though they might not come every Sunday, they are there. And I think these new steps say to them that the parish is here for them.”

The new stairs of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Girouxville while still under construction this summer.

The Girouxville parish has been without front steps since March of 2019, when the previous stairs were demolished. These stairs were a large 52-foot wide stairwell with a steep steel ramp. After an inspection revealed that some of its foundational supports were weakening, as well as the increased deterioration of its metal exterior, it was decided to demolish the stairs and begin work to build a new set.

“The wheelchair access ramp was made out of metal and over the years the salt and everything else just took its toll and soon enough, safety-wise, it was no longer feasible to keep it there,” said parishioner Denis Boisvert. “Once we got an engineer in, he told us he was concerned that the metal fatigue was taking its toll and it could get dangerous.”

The previous stairs were built several decades earlier to provide wheelchair accessibility to the parish. Carmen can recall the tough workout her father would receive over the years, as he pushed Carmen’s wheelchair-bound mother up the steep ramp of the parish stairwell. Years later a lift was installed in the church, located underneath the stairs, to provide additional accessibility. Carmen says the ramp always had a mixed reputation in the parish.

“That ramp was dangerous from the first day they put it up I think,” she said with a laugh.

After the old steps and ramp were removed, a group of parishioners formed a construction committee and hired an architect to prepare some preliminary designs. An initial fundraiser was organized – a bazaar at the church – which gave the project a promising start. But then the first major obstacle came their way: the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down churches across the country and made it nearly impossible for the construction committee to meet.

“When COVID happened it was a big hurdle for making any progress. We just didn’t know how to meet and it made it difficult to get coordinated and move things along,” said Denis.

Members of the 4th Degree Knights of Columbus – Grouard Assembly, helped with fundraising efforts for the parish stairs.

The pandemic also meant restrictions on the shipment of materials like concrete, wood and steel, and this led to intense inflationary hikes in prices. Every time they received a new estimate on the costs of the project, the construction committee had to brace themselves for another major increase. Even when pandemic restrictions lessened, these costs never ended up significantly decreasing.

“We made several changes to the design along the way, largely based on the costs,” said Carmen. “The costs just went up so much. Just from the time between submitting a proposal to the time we actually got a quote the costs would have increased by another $50,000. It was unreal.”

“The costs just went up so much. Just from the time between submitting a proposal to the time we actually got a quote the costs would have increased by another $50,000. It was unreal.”

Several construction companies were contacted and eventually Turcotte Construction of Donnelly stepped up to take on the project. The project has ended up now costing around $372,000.

“When the prices shot up the quotes we received became a very tough pill to swallow,” Denis recalled. “Some people would start to ask if we really needed new stairs, but we needed to be able to access the church doors properly. Those costs never came down, but we simply had to get it done. So we formed a committee and forged ahead.

“The controversy was understandable. You can’t spend this level of money without people asking questions. It was also a good reminder for us to study what we were doing a little bit more and to always look for ways we could save money.”

The lack of front stairs, from early 2019 to the end of this past summer, did cause many hurdles for the parish. During this time the church could only be accessed via two side doors. Once during a funeral at the parish, because there were no stairs yet leading up to the front doors, the casket of the deceased (with permission of the family) was raised into the church by a heavy equipment man lift.

It was clear the project was not something the parish could easily abandon, even as the cost seemed more and more beyond their capacity.

Carmen Ewing gathers parishioners together for their egg drop fundraiser.

The saving grace against such financial burdens was the parish’s fundraising committee. Each time the estimated costs of the stairs project went up, the committee remained steadfast that they would meet this challenge by simply intensifying their fundraising efforts. This required much creativity, initiative and dedication.

“Fortunately, we had a group of people who formed the fundraising committee, who were 100% committed,” said Carmen.

The feeling was, no matter what, we’re going to fundraise, we’re going to build these stairs and we’re going to pay them off, And to this day they have that same attitude and we’re still working to further our fundraising. Now, the amount of money we’ve raised is close to $300,000, so we’re well on our way.”

After the bazaar, the parish held two sweet deal calendar campaigns, as well as two egg drop fundraisers. In this latter fundraiser, donators got to purchase coloured plastic eggs from a basket that was then dropped from a helicopter on the pilgrimage grounds in Girouxville.

Parish priest Fr. Christian Ogbonna, SDV had the honours of being raised by helicopter over the grotto grounds outside the church and dropping the eggs over a designated marking. In the most recent egg drop fundraiser, the three closest eggs to the marking received cash prizes of $1,300, $800 and $500. The helicopter time was donated by the pilot.

“For a small community like Girouxville, it’s a lot to raise this kind of money…”

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the October 2023 edition of Northern Light