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The Palace

Palace in the dictionary means "the official residence of a king, emperor, bishop etc.," so when we were kids and referred to the building at 45 Great George Street as The Palace we were quite correct. A little ostentatious, but still strengthened by tradition. Certain frills and efforts add to a story and the importance and prestige of an institution and that's what the people of the Diocese of Charlottetown apparently wanted for their Bishop [and likely what the Bishop wanted for himself] back in 1868. They choose to build a magnificent structure on the best street in Charlottetown. What surprised me was that the Palace predated the first stone Cathedral by over 28 years. In 1868, across Dorchester Street with its door facing south, stood the grand wooden church that had been built in 1843. At the time it was considered quite wonderful and it did have the only clock in town in its tower...

How oft as a boy, when learning the time
And trying to decipher the ten from the nine,
Would its hands help me out in a friendly way.
At least I believe so--to this very day.

* * * * * * Like the oak and the ivy
My thoughts they entwine
Round the old Chapel Clock
And the men of its time
A lesson we learn from inanimate things
As the trees that we look at
From its embryo spring.
from a poem by A.W.Reddin

The Diocese was firmly established with a centre piece on Great George Street and supported intellectually by the college at the edge of town. There is no question that the needs of the Diocese were quite different when those buildings were built. To begin with travel was more complex, visits were generally more extended and over night guests were very common. Is its role so different today? Is this complex of church and house still not the centre of the Diocese ? If not why is it still called a Basilica?

About three weeks ago a letter was distributed to the parishioners of St Dunstan's. The point of concern was The Palace and its future. It appears as if this Bishop has cut the ties with the official residence and it has landed on the lap of the parishioners of Saint. Dunstan's. Maybe I missed an act or two, but I don't remember hearing that this was ever officially done, so I would have thought that such a letter should have gone out to the entire Diocese and that the opinion of all would be important. I do know, of course that the present, and previous, Bishop have been living in York Point. I was told that the house and property was a gift to Bishop James from this sisters and came on stream with no cost to the diocese. It is an expensive property assessed at $322,600. The Palace is assessed at $328,000. But, as I say, maybe the whole diocese have agreed that our Bishop should be living by himself in a country place overlooking the West River. I certainly agree that a person with the responsibilities of the Bishop of The Diocese of Charlottetown needs a gentle place of contemplation to go to now and then - often really, but I do not believe that the Bishop should not be a presence on Great George Street.

But back to the letter! It is the future of The Palace that is under discussion. It is clear that the needs as they were first perceived have changed and a discussion at this time is a worthy one. Here are the options as they are listed in the letter:

  1. Renovate for parish use as it is or make the building smaller -- now does that mean lowering the roof or taking off the wing?
  2. Renovate for alternate use like into office space or condominiums [does that mean the Diocese is going into the development business or, as they mention almost as a after thought, that it could be made into a retirement home for priests of the Diocese.]
  3. Sell the building and investing the money in the church and/or build or buy a smaller house for the priests.
  4. Tear down the rectory and build a new Parish House on the land. Well. Well. That simply does not make sense and is an insult to those who have worked to maintain a vibrant community in the downtown first and foremost for Charlottetownians and only down the list for tourists. We are talking about the church's congregation here.

So, with these four points, I see a number of issues suddenly opened up for discussion and they did ask for openness.

First what strikes me is the deep traditions of the church and the role of Saint Dunstans as the Basilica and seat of the diocese. This is the seat of the Bishop and where he resides. That was the basis behind the effort of our forefathers when the buildings were constructed. That tradition should be recognized.

Secondly, the priests in the Diocese ... who have given their life to the church should be provided for in their retirement in some building and likely in the city as many of them would wish. There are a number of options within existing facilities or in newly designed accommodations, but why not leave them with the familiar and the intellectually and spiritual stimulation of the activities of the Diocese. If the building is so excessive in size, is the addressing of a solution for this problem not simply a design one.

Thirdly, the parish itself must be served by having comfortable accommodations for its priests who work there - that is a given.

These three needs would more than fill the the square footage space of that building and the renovation costs could well be justified.

In the Charlottetown area are a number of pieces of land belonging to the Diocese that are not used or certainly under utilized. In addition they add nothing visually to the community. I refer to the Rochford Square School site [assessment $172,000.], the parking lots at the Queen Square School site [assessment $172,000] and the Duffy site on the corner of Richmond and Prince [assessment $63,000.] and the vacant lot on Sydney Street behind the Recreation Centre. There is also a vacant lot on King Street behind the Palace [assessment at $30,000.]. One could add the Recreation Centre itself to that list since its activities offer little to the spiritual live of the parish. Its assessment that includes the lot on Sydney Street is about 1.8 million. The sale of these properties would offer an opportunity for the city to improve its streetscapes and provide dollars for the church to seriously address the problems with the keystone of the diocese [ie. church and Palace] . Until those issues are addressed you cannot cry poor.

One can regard the heritage designation of buildings of importance as a hinderance if that is the mind set, but I suggest it would be difficult to find the descendants of the people who put those buildings there in the first place who would not find comfort from that protection. Others might argue that these buildings are being kept up to satisfy the appearance of the community with tourism and such. But no, a place and its history and the comfort of its streetscape make up the ambience that people want to live in or they don't. Churches are stakeholders in the community in which their congregations live and they must recognize their spiritual contribution to the landscape.

The challenge of being a downtown church is a difficult one as our cities undergo their evolutionary change. In Charlottetown we have eight churches below Euston Street - a number of them making a rich architectural contribution to our landscape. All of them in one degree or another with parking problems, preservation problems and certainly various congregational problems. We do not want to lose any of the downtown churches, but we recognize the incredible complexity of maintaining them. Before we take drastic measures, and lose what our forefathers left us, we must call together people to sit down with wisdom and discuss the issues. None of you are alone - or should be, to answer the problems by your lonesome. It is a community problem.

As for the Queen Square School site it should be acquired by the Province and become a building to fulfil a public need and on top of a two storey underground garage to be shared by "church and state"!!!!! As far as use of such a building is concerned I'd suggest that it would be an ideal site for a Provincial Museum space with Public Archives and office related to the preservation and promotion of our distinct Island heritage.

Ponder carefully.

Written Monday, May 14, 2001 at 09:13 PM

(c) 2000 by Catherine Hennessey. Questions or comments? Email me@catherinehennessey.com

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