By Veronica Stienburg – Archivist, Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, Kingston
Archives are the storehouses of history that preserve the documentary evidence of past activities, institutions and individuals. There is a pressing need to preserve and make accessible the religious history of Kingston and Eastern Ontario and the St. Dismas Archives is being developed to begin addressing that need.
The need for a religious archives in Kingston was becoming apparent at the same time the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston was thinking about the future of one of its closed churches. In November 2013 the Archdiocese closed the Church of the Good Thief in Portsmouth Village, in Kingston, Ontario. The Church was built between 1892 and 1894 from limestone quarried, cut and carried to the site by convict labour from the Kingston Penitentiary. The Archdiocese wanted to re-purpose the building in a manner that would honour and respect its heritage as a place of worship and as an important landmark in Portsmouth. In 2014 discussions began regarding potentially converting the church into an archival facility for the Archdiocese of Kingston.
In 2015 a committee was formed to pursue the idea of turning the church into an archives, as the Archdiocese does not currently have an established professional archives. We knew that the exterior of the church needed extensive restoration work, especially the tower. Over the course of the first few months we determined two things – that the Archdiocese was not the only religious organization in Kingston that needed a permanent Archives and that we would need to sell off the Rectory and surrounding land in order to fund the project.
The Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph and the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul were also looking for permanent homes for their Archives. The RHSJ’s St. Joseph Region Archives moved to temporary space at Hotel Dieu in 2012 when their Regional House was sold. The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent De Paul are coming to completion and as the Motherhouse Property is developed into Providence Village, their archives will need a permanent home. Both congregations need their archives to move to a climate controlled professional facility where the legacy of the Sisters will be preserved and made accessible for research. We are also talking with other religious groups in the hopes of housing the archival records of other groups in need.
The Church of the Good Thief rectory and surrounding land were severed in 2017 and sold in October 2018 to Zalcho Construction for residential development. Zalcho has been working closely with the Archdiocese and we see the Church of the Good Thief site as being one vision made up of two enterprises – high quality apartments and a professional archival facility in a park like setting. This vision respects the heritage of the site and its place within the Portsmouth community, while breathing new life into the site and the church.
In October 2018 the committee hired +VG Architects to conduct an assessment of the exterior envelope of the church and to design the archives. It is important that the exterior of the building be structurally sound and weather proof before starting on the conversion of the interior to an archives. +VG has wonderful experience restoring heritage church buildings and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the project.
We hope this project will be trendsetting as an ecclesiastical archives project that relies heavily on partnerships of likeminded institutions. Partnerships are key to the future of religious archives, as more and more institutions face decreasing numbers and resources.
This is an exciting project that will restore and preserve a valuable piece of architectural history, a beloved church building, and will provide a much needed permanent home to the documentary heritage of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston, the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph and other potential partners.