For six of the seven years that I lived there I was involved with the Aylmer Heritage Association (AHA). It is a group dedicated to saving the architectural patrimony of Aylmer, a town with one of the richest stock of heritage buildings in the Ottawa Valley. Founded in 1810 by a small group of Scots Methodists from New England the town thrived as a lumbering community and staging post for trips up the Ottawa River. As it developed Irish immigrants and French Canadians came in as labourers and workers; prosperous merchants built large stylish homes and all the businesses that were necessary for a town to prosper and grow were opened.
Given the background of the town founders it stands to reason that the first house of worship was a Methodist Chapel – a lovely building recently restored and the headquarters of the AHA. Churches of other faiths followed and in 1838 Charles Symmes, one of the city fathers and an ardent Methodist, gave land for the expressed purpose of building a Catholic church – he may not have agreed with the way his staff worshiped but he wanted them to worship! The first St Paul’s was destroyed by fire in 1892 and a new church built in 1893. In the Gothic style so favoured at the time, the interior was richly adorned and painted and the steeple reached for the heavens.
In the 1800s St Paul’s steeple was a landmark to travellers on both sides of the river whither arrival was by steamer or stage coach. And was still an indication that I was near home when I was coming back from trips up the Valley a full century later. I always knew I was almost there when I could see that steeple. That will no longer be the case.
Early on the morning of June 11th a fire broke out in the back of the church and within hours, no doubt fed by the old wood interior, St Paul’s had become an empty stone shell. It appears, from evidence and witness accounts, that the fire was an act of arson. The purposeful destruction of historical buildings is not unknown in the town but normally that would be when it stood in the way of some developer’s plans. This was a working and active parish church with a good size congregation and was in the process of being restored. Why anyone would want to destroyed it is a mystery.
An investigation is under way and it appears an arrest is imminent. But if found and then convicted what punishment do you give to someone who has destroyed a piece of history? What is a fitting sentence when the heritage of a place is wantonly destroyed? What do you get for taking the heart out of a community?
13 giugno – Sant’Antonio di Padova