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St. Stephen's: 175 years in the hearts of Chelseaites
By Sheilagh Murphy and Suzanne Gibeault
In the heart of the village of Chelsea, St. Stephen's Catholic Church stands as a witness to the passage of time, the work of generations past, and the growth of a community from as far back as the late 1800s, when its construction began
However, prior to the construction of the large stone church in 1879, a small mission church, St-Étienne-de-Chelsea, had, since 1840, been serving the worshiping needs of an increasing number of Catholic settlers to the region - many Irish immigrant farmers or those coming from the Montreal area seeking employment in the burgeoning lumber industry, mining and local tannery.
A few years later, the Archbishop of Montreal, Monsignor Ignace Bourget, recognized that it was time to give the growing community Catholic Parish status.
On October 15, 1845 - 175 years ago - the Parish of St. Stephen was officially established, and a young Irish priest, Father James Elias Hughes, became the first to serve a congregation of 130 families who lived on both sides of the Gatineau River.
Father Hughes faithfully served the community for 14 years, and, in succession over the years, more than 25 priests continued in his footsteps, serving both congregation and community right up until 2020 with Father Daniel Kelly and Abbé Fadi Atalla now serving a multicultural congregation of over 160 families in both English and French.
Father Hughes, by the way, is not buried in the adjacent cemetery, but under the chancel of the church itself, in what is known as a crypt burial.
For many, it is the grand stone church with its majestic bell tower, built in the Roman Baroque style between 1879 and 1883, that is known so well. What is less known is that the early parishioners provided their time and financial and in-kind donations, as well as materials, to complete the construction of this beloved historic landmark. The names of many of the founding families, and families who selflessly contributed to parish and community life in Chelsea more broadly over the past 175 years, can be found among the tombstones in the cemetery next to the church - names like Brennan, Crilley, Dunlop, Dufour, Fleming, Grimes, Hendrick, Kelly, Mulvihill, Murphy, Padden, Ryan, Scott, Trudeau, Welch, and Young.
Building on the contributions of parishioners' past, today's parishioners own local businesses, sit on the municipal council and volunteer in many different capacities. They also have been working tirelessly to preserve the historic church building and their place of worship in partnership with the Conseil du Patrimoine religieux du Quebec.
While the church may be situated in the heart of the village, St. Stephen's heart is truly found in its parishioners and the community it serves.
In its 175 years, the parish grounds and edifices have been a gathering place for community fairs, ecumenical services and concerts, and for families and friends to celebrate major life events. Many may remember well the age of tractor pulls, summer festivals with three-legged races, bingos, horseshoe competitions, BBQs and ice cream stands. The local Chelrod Club used to hold its annual auto show of classic and mint-condition cars on the grounds at the back of the church, as well as the now retired annual auction put on by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society.
Over time, as events changed, the ecumenical summer festivals gave way to the Municipal Chelsea Days, with some events held on the grounds behind the church, including classical concerts inside the church and, up until this year, the Old Chelsea Market.
The Rectory, set to be demolished in 2010, saw its revival by local artists and re-purposed into the present Arts and Culture Centre, widely known as La Fab.
Each Christmas, St. Stephen's Church and La Fab jointly host several of Chelsea's Magical Christmas activities in partnership with the Municipality of Chelsea to the delight and enjoyment of locals young and young at heart.
Much had been planned to celebrate the 175th anniversary of St. Stephen's Parish this summer and fall, including an outdoor mass and community picnic and a cemetery walking tour. The COVID-19 public health emergency has placed many of the plans on hold, however. In time there will be a community celebration and visitors will be able to once again stop by and visit the church as part of its "Open Doors" program.
In the interim, the church has re-opened, allowing a maximum of 50 people to safely celebrate at each of its two Sunday masses. The historic bell continues to ring each Sunday, pastoral services are available and St. Stephen's parishioners are actively contributing to parish and community life, ensuring that St. Stephen's remains a place for prayer, a symbol of faith and hope and a welcoming beacon to all in the heart of Chelsea.
Visit us at st-stephen.ca
Sheilagh Murphy and Suzanne Gibeault are members of the St. Stephen's parish.