More than 200 years ago, Bishop Alexander Macdonell sat in his parlour, contemplating the following Sunday’s homily or, perhaps, his next building project.

By the end of this summer, that parlour might be open to the public.

That’s because a group of workers and volunteers is undertaking a massive renovation project at the Bishop’s House, located in St. Raphael’s immediately west of Iona Academy. The three-storey stone house was built by the bishop in 1808. Over the years, it has served a number of purposes – including a stint as an alcohol treatment centre – before falling into a state of disrepair.

Then, in the early spring of 2016, the non-profit group, the Glengarry Fencibles Trust (GFT) took possession of the house from the Catholic Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall.

Armed with $100,000 in federal money through Parks Canada, and with a similar amount in its own coffers that it brought in through fundraising, the GFT’s first major project was to replace the roof of the Bishop’s House.

GFT President Brenda Baxter says that project cost about $160,000. The group is using its leftover funds to renovate about 800 square feet of the Bishop’s House’s main floor, which includes the bishop’s parlour and three other rooms.

“The four rooms are the part of the house that gives it its gravitas,” she says.

Ms. Baxter hopes that the work will be done by the end of August. When completed, each room should have completely redone walls, ceilings, and floors and the four fireplaces in the rooms should be restored as well.

FIREPLACE RESTORATION: Glengarry Fencibles Trust President Brenda Baxter points to a pinewood mantle piece that was removed from the fireplace in the former parlour of Bishop Alexander Macdonell, who built the Bishop’s House in 1808. The Fencibles group, who recently completed a $160,000 replacement of the roof, is hard at work renovating 800 square feet of the historic building.

She says the work won’t be a complete restoration so that the house looks the way it did in 1808. Rather, it will be an “adaptive reuse,” meaning it will be adapted in a way that’s conducive to modern needs while still honouring the architecture and the feel of the original building.

Part of the reason is that the GFT hopes that the Bishop’s House will eventually be able to host events like wedding receptions, concerts, and other social gatherings. They also want to make it completely accessible.

“One of the floors was under parquet,” Ms. Baxter says. “We had to remove it because it was three quarters of an inch thick.”

She adds that it would be extremely difficult for people in walkers to navigate a floor like that.

But while Ms. Baxter feels that there’s enough funding in place to finish this first phase, she says more is necessary before the house can undergo any further work. For the next phase, the GFT will need to have some architectural drawings down as well as an understanding of the mechanical, heating, plumbing and electrical needs of the 200-amp service building. They would also need to install accessible washrooms and a ramp.

One thing is for sure: there is definitely a lot of public interest in the building. Ms. Baxter says that the GFT is constantly being asked if the Bishop’s House can be used for various events, which makes sense given its proximity to the St. Raphael’s Ruins.

In any case, we may get a taste of what the future has in store once summer comes to an end and those four rooms have refinished floors, repainted ceilings, redone walls, and restored stairs.

The Glengarry News (March 9, 2022) Volume 131 No. 10.

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