Project to bring together religious archives at the Church of the Good Thief

The Church of the Good Thief as it stands on King Street West in Portsmouth Village in early fall 2019. Kingstonist file photo.

The beautiful limestone church on King Street West has stood empty for quite some time, but a joint effort from multiple religious partners will see the building continue to hold its religious significance in an entirely new way.

The Archdiocese of Kingston, the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph will all bring their respective archives into the Church of the Good Thief as part of a unique project. With the potential of partnering with other religious partners, the project will not only solve the issues facing the involved partners in terms of housing archives and making them publicly accessible, it will also serve as a template for other religious organizations facing the same issues.

The project will be called the St. Dismas Archives at the Church of the Good Thief, and has already been in the works for a number of years, explained Veronica Stienburg, Archivist with the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.

The Church of the Good Thief was closed by the Archdiocese of Kingston in 2013 due to the deteriorating conditions of the building itself, and the lack of clergy to run and maintain it. However, for the Archdiocese, maintaining ownership of the well-known church with an interesting history all of its own was of utmost importance, Stienburg explained.

“The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston felt very strongly that they didn’t want to sell the church building itself,” she said. “But the question was what to do with it to use it in a way that would still respect its religious heritage and meet a need of the Archdiocese.”

The Archdiocese of Kingston does not have an established archival program currently, and their archives are held in different locations.

“They knew that they had a need for an archives, so they came up with this idea that the Church of the Good Thief could potentially be an archives… It was just sort of a dream,” Stienburg said with a laugh.

Stienburg , who oversees the archives of the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, which are housed at the Providence Motherhouse (Heathfield), knew that, at some point, her organization would need to find a permanent home, as the Sisters are diminishing in numbers and coming to completion, and the Motherhouse property is being developed into Providence Village. At the same time, The Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph – more commonly referred to as the Sisters of Hotel Dieu – had sold their Regional House in 2012. That building had housed their archives, which were then placed in storage at Hotel Dieu Hospital as a short term solution.

“These three partners, the Archdiocese and the two religious orders, had this common need, so we began to look into how we could work together to meet this need for everybody,” Stienburg said.

Together, these three organizations have been working together ever since to create a brand new home for their combined archives at Church of the Good Thief – a church names as such because it was built between 1892 and 1894 with limestone quarried, cut and transported to the site by convicts from Kingston Penitentiary.

The property where Church of the Good Thief stands was severed into six lots in 2017, and the Archdiocese retained ownership of the church while selling off the remaining five lots. Those lots were purchased in 2018, and the developer working on the lots has been in communication with those working on the archives project throughout planning in order to ensure the surrounding buildings will complement the historic church, Stienburg said.

An overview of the entire site plan for the Church of the Good Thief and the surrounding lots. Image by Studio Canoo.

With the money from the sale of the properties, the partnering religious organizations were able to secure an architectural firm, which is currently in the final stages of designing a masterplan that not only covers the much-needed reparations to the church, but also the concept design for turning the interior of the building into an archives. Moving forward, they hope to begin construction of the restoration of the tower in spring next year before moving on to the exterior restoration of the church, including a new slate roof, in 2021. The partners plan to do the interior construction of the archives in 2022.

So what, exactly, do the archives hold? It differs, depending on which organization’s archives you’re looking at, but they are all similar in that they offer a glimpse at what life was like for those in Kingston in the mid-to-late-1800s.

The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul were founded in Kingston in 1861, so their archives include personnel information about the sisters, and the council records right from 1861 on. The archives also includes the annals the sisters kept while on missions across Canada, and in countries like Peru and Guatemala.

The Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph have been in Kingston since the 1840s, and their archives include a rich look at the history of Hotel Dieu Hospital, which the sisters ran, as well as the history of the Catholic community in Kingston.

And the Archdiocese of Kingston, established in 1826, have archives documenting all of those who have served with the Archdiocese and the various parishes throughout the region. These documents include information on parishioners and their families, as do the archives of the two religious orders.

From a secular perspective, these archives are not only important in terms of some of the interesting historical information they provide, but also in terms of genealogy research, Stienburg explained.

For those reasons, the organizations are planning to ensure their respective archives will be accessible for the public. The official plans of how that will work – be it appointment-based, or having dedicated dates where the archives are open to the public – still need to be ironed out after the architectural plans for the site are complete, but there will “definitely be means for the public to access the archives,” Stienburg said.

A rendering of the plans for the interior of Church of the Good Thief. The Archives offices and public spaces will be on the second level (pictured here) on top of the archival storage room. There will also be a walkway at the level of the stain glass windows. Image by +VG Architects

“That’s the point, really – to make it all accessible,” she expressed.

“The sisters are diminishing and coming to completion… and the Archdiocese of Kingston have archives detailing history of the Catholic community in Kingston. We want that history to live on, and to be accessible to people.”

And while the archives may be religious in nature, they hold stories and information that can be interesting and useful to a wide spectrum of people, religiously and otherwise.

“Yes, it’s the Catholic history, but it also tells you a lot about what was going on in Kingston and the surrounding areas at specific time periods… Obviously, religious life doesn’t live totally separate from secular life,” Stienburg said.

“So really, the archives give people a real window into Kingston’s history.”

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