Nestled far below the towering, snow-capped heights of Mount Stephen lies a small, aging church that’s been mostly dormant for years.
Aside from the occasional church service and wedding, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Field is seldom used. When it did host services, they were organized by Sacred Heart in Golden, exclusively in the summer months. Attendance was poor and parishioners could often be counted on one hand.
That, more than anything, is why the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nelson decided to sell the building.
“There’s so few people there…we see no reason to maintain the church there any more,” said Bishop John Corriveau.
While services at St. Joseph’s have been sparsely attended in recent years, that’s not to say that the facility’s recent existence has been a lonely one. Far from it.
A fixture in Field since 1908, St. Joseph’s is the most photographed building in the village. You’d be hard pressed to find any statistics to back that up, but you’d be equally hard pressed to make a legitimate argument for a contender to that title.
It’s easy to see why, as St. Joseph’s location under the 3,199 metre Mount Stephen makes for an attractive shot for photographers, from amateurs to professionals.
The building itself could probably use some work. The rickety steps leading to its weathered wooden doorway could do with a fresh coat of paint, at the very least, and the double doors on the way into the sanctuary tend to stick. Inside, its two rows of pews – which might be able to seat 50 individuals depending on what each had for breakfast – remain intact. Other than the sanctuary, there’s just a small room at the back that was once a confessional.
And it’s not that the church smells bad, but there is a distinct odour inside St. Joseph’s walls, the kind of smell that you might expect from a building that’s stood tall for over a century.
Indeed, St. Joseph’s has character and more than a touch of small-town charm.
The church’s first home was actually in Donald, built in 1888 by railroad construction crews. It was later moved to Field, where it has remained for 108 years. It used to be a hub for worship, with Field’s many Italian residents making up a large part of the church’s congregation.
Now, St. Joseph’s is more of an icon, a landmark for a town of just a few hundred people.
Lately, there is concern amongst those few hundred about what the building’s fate may be. At one time there were four churches in Field, but only St. Joseph’s remains.
“A lot of visitors have dropped by there for mass and in times of need. The church has always been left open for people to come in and out freely as they please over the 35 or 40 years that I’ve lived here,” said resident Joanie Keefer.
“It’s such a landmark in the town here. It gives off a sense of holiness. It’s an amazing place.”
The building was officially put on the market this summer. A potential buyer has been found and the sale is pending. In anticipation of the sale, the Catholic Church removed all religious artifacts from within the building over the summer.
When the Field Community Council heard about the Church’s intention to sell, they made a proposal: they asked the Church to donate the building to the community.
Their case for a donation was made stronger when taking into account the work that residents of Field have put into St. Joseph’s in its more recent history.
“Over the past 35 years, at least two different work parties were put into place to take care of painting, roof and bell tower maintenance, stair work, chimney repair…This work was raised with funds donated by the community through fundraisers and donations by individuals, businesses and past parishioners. Over $10,000 was raised, and work completed through paid and volunteer time,” Keefer said.
“The community really did step in to take care of it through cutting the grass, shovelling the snow…there’s definitely been a commitment from the community and we felt that, given it’s such a significant building, that (a donation) would be the right thing to do,” said Craig Chapman, who has lived in Field for 20 years and chairs the Community Council.
Chapman said that the village of Field’s intention was to maintain the building as it is and run a wedding chapel.
While Bishop Corriveau says he is very appreciative of the work that the community has done over the years, he denied their request.
“We’re not in the habit of giving our churches away…first of all, it’s not my church to give away. I’m the administrator of other people’s properties and with that church, I have to be respectful of two points: Number one, the intention of all those people who built that church originally,” Bishop Corriveau said.
“Secondly, over the years religious services were maintained because of the generosity of the (Catholic) community in Golden…I have no basis for donating that to the municipality of Field.”
Bishop Corriveau later added that the Catholic Church simply couldn’t afford to make a donation of this sort, and that if the church were to be given away, he’d have looked at moving the building out of Field to a location that was in need of a better worship facility.
The village of Field was given the first opportunity to purchase the building, but Chapman says that was never a realistic possibility for the community with the church’s price tag set at $35,000.
Because the church is not a designated heritage building by Parks Canada, its ultimate fate could be left up to the wishes of the buyer, a concern for many residents of Field who would like to see the church remain as is.
“It still seems like a spiritual place now…the doors are still open and the pews are in there. That would be my greatest fear, is that the whole structure would be torn down,” Keefer said. “It’s the fear of a lot of people, not only that live in this town but past (residents).”
“People always just assume that something will be what it is. So it’s a shock to the community when they see a change. People, rightfully so, want to see it preserved…there’s a lot of history in town and we’ve lost a lot of history. So people just don’t want to see those sort of mistakes being made again,” Chapman said.