In 2018, the St Francis de Sales School at the corner of Elmsley and Russell Streets in Smiths Falls closed, as the school board deemed that the structure was no longer viable as an operating school. The terms of the agreement between the school board and the St. Francis de Sales church next door, gave the church the first right to take back ownership of the school property, which they did in 2019 after holding a referendum among members of the parish. (The church originally donated the property to the school board). Their plans were to demolish the building and create additional parking for church services and functions. Earlier this year, the Smiths Falls Housing Task Force identified the closed school as a possible site for housing (including affordable units) and approached the church to see if their plans could be changed. The town looked into what it could do in terms of improving the number of available parking spots on surrounding streets for the church, but their proposals didn’t match the number that would be gained by using the entire school property for parking, nor did it match what the church determined it needed for its parishioners.
Smack dab in the middle of this situation is Smiths Falls’ town councilor and St Francis parishioner Chris McGuire. As a member of town council he has been as up to date as anyone regarding the communications between the town and the church and as most local politicians has been and continues to be a great supporter of affordable housing. He also stated he has not been involved in any of those discussions between the church and town hall. Late last month, he wrote a letter to the editor of a local news media outlet bringing attention to this matter and indicating he would be conducting a ‘housing fast’ on Saturday nights while camped out on the front steps of the school. The purpose of this peaceful demonstration in his own words in that letter is as follows, “I am hopeful that through prayer and small acts of love everyone can find a home. For this reason, I am going to begin a housing fast by sleeping on the steps of the old school Saturday nights. Fasting is an act of love, the giving up of a good for a greater good. It helps me to put my comforts in context and maybe grow more like the Samaritan. If you feel called to get involved with this story, please consider offering up a small act of love for our community.”
Hometown News dropped in on Saturday Dec 5 to speak with McGuire. He and a small group of supporters were getting ready to bunk down for the night. He noted that since the church made its decision, new information has come to light. Grants, he reported, are available from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to complete a feasibility study on the school to determine some outcomes if it was to be converted to affordable and/or rent geared to income units. McGuire states that the number of units that could be accommodated in the structure according to most sources is approximately 30. He added that without such a formal investigation, the true value of the school asset couldn’t be determined and pointed out that other church parishes have signed have signed long term leases to retain land ownership and create revenue with housing projects. The costs of demolition and parking lot construction have been pegged at just over $700K.
He admits that today it would “take a miracle to see this school converted into housing of some type.” He is pinning his hopes that the parish members will decide to go forward with a full feasibility study and then decide what to do with the property based on that information.
Father Rod McNeil of the church told Hometown News that he doesn’t see what a feasibility study could necessarily add to reviews already done by a member of the housing task force, Chris Saumure (a member of the construction industry), who has examined the building on several occasions. He stated that the current lack of parking, unless resolved, will be the nail in the coffin of the church. He notes that the church is well aware of the challenges facing Smiths Falls’ residents and like other churches, St Francis has actively helped out with food and rent assistance in the past, among other supports and will continue in the future. He also added that more than a few residential neighbours of the church have used its parking in the winter when on-street parking is prohibited and as the church operates a hall, parking is required for more than just Sunday services. He also wanted it made clear that the demolition of the school was a parish decision. There was an open and above board process to inform the parishioners of the options and their decision was to take down the school, and their expectation now is that the school will be demolished. Tenders will go out just before or just after Christmas.
At the end of it all, the likelihood of the church changing its position seems low and those that would want to see such a change certainly don’t want to paint the parish as an uncaring community member. But it is the season of miracles, so maybe McGuire’s will come to pass.