The long-rumoured and much-anticipated sale of the former St. Joseph’s School in Chemainus has become a reality.
It has been sold to a registered charity that plans to establish a residential therapeutic program on site designed to help those in recovery from alcohol and drug addictions through education in social skills, vocational training and connection with the community.
The sale was announced over the weekend by the Diocese of Victoria and the Island Catholic Schools board of directors, with the acceptance of a proposal from the Cowichan Valley Intentional Recovery Community Society.
St. Joseph’s Elementary Catholic School served the community from 1964 to 2018 before closing due to an insurmountable debt. The site was repurposed with the grand opening of the St. Joseph’s Art Studios in May of 2019, with artists renting spaces from Island Catholic Schools to showcase their art, display items for sale and offer classes to the public. The gym also houses South Island Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
While the offer has been accepted from CVIRCS for the building, “they have conditions and the closing date will not be for a long time,” said Keefer Pollard, a former principal at St. Joseph’s and also the district principal of Island Catholic Schools.
Since November of 2019, the Diocese of Victoria has been searching for a new vision for the property that would retain a place of worship for the Catholic community with the St. Joseph’s Church adjacent to the former school, satisfy an $850,000 debt, and also provide community outreach over and above monetary gain. The offer by the CVIRCS satisfied all those objectives.
“The Cowichan Valley Intentional Recovery Community Society program will be a lifeboat for people ship-wrecked on the stormy sea of addictions,” noted the Most Reverend Gary Gordon, Bishop of the Diocese of Victoria, in a press release.
As discussions progressed, misinformation spread about the site and led to concerns about a change in the neighbourhood dynamics.
The diocese stressed the program is not a homeless shelter, a detox facility or safe injection site, a drop-in centre, food bank or soup kitchen and is not accepting those with complex mental health issues.
“It is helpful to acknowledge that the opposite of addiction is not just sobriety, but connection,” pointed out Bernie Willock, chair of the CVIRCS. “True recovery involves restoring our full participation in a flourishing community.”
The property will be subdivided to keep the church as an active place of worship and the school building will house a long-term residential program for applicants already in recovery. The program will operate like a household with firm rules, including no drugs or alcohol, no violence or threats of violence, participation in community programs seven days a week and no one leaving the premises without permission and accompaniment of an approved leader.
Once a proposal was developed, the diocese actively sought input from All Saints parishioners that include St. Joseph’s Church in Chemainus and St. Mary’s Church in Ladysmith to ensure the Catholic community was engaged in the decision-making process. Feedback revealed significant support from both congregations.
“Parishioners are pleased to see that the school will continue, albeit a different type of school, but one that society really needs,” noted Ellen Lavender, chair of All Saints Parish Council.
“Our attitude of concern for people from the street who want to improve their lives, and to provide a place for them, for me, has eternal value,” added Rev. Mel Bayron, Pastor of All Saints Parish.
The CVIRCS is ready to engage with its new neighbours within the North Cowichan community to share its vision, answer questions and welcome their support.
Pollard added the artists at the studio have been contacted about what the deal means for them.
“They can reasonably assume they can be there for another year,” he said. “As the timeline proceeds, we’ll keep them up to date.”
The process to subdivide usually takes considerable time and Pollard expects it might even take longer amid the pandemic.