Thursday, December 17, 2015

Grave Matters

Across from the church in Cap-Pele lies the Sainte-Therese-d'Avila Cemetery, a park-like setting where a central tree-lined pathway leads to a monumental calvary.   This is the final resting place for many Acadians whose lives relate directly to the history of the village; pioneers, priests, fishermen, farmers and their relatives.  The surnames etched on stone markers are as familiar to those who live in the community today as they were to residents of the region in 1842, when a plot of land was ceded to the Catholic church by the Leblanc and Cormier families for use as a graveyard.  Situated in the heart of Acadie,  it's a significant historic resource and a sacred place.

Sainte-Therese-d'Avila Cemetery, Cap-Pele

The NB government has a register of historic places, and this cemetery is listed in their files.  The notes supporting historic designation of the site mention the graves of prominent local figures, the unique symbolism and style of certain gravestones and the variety of mature trees.

In November, when I took a walk through the cemetery to honour the Day of the Dead,  I was shocked to find that many of the old tombstones were freshly painted.  Coats of white paint topped with flashes of garish colour had transformed the character of the cemetery from historic landmark to Disney-esque stage set.  How had this happened?

A well-meaning but misguided village resident had decided to "spruce up" the cemetery during the summer months.  She sought and was granted permission for the project from the church caretaker, received a donation of enamel paint from the hardware store and recruited a team of volunteers to help out.  Unfortunately, she neglected to do any research regarding acceptable methodology for tombstone restoration.  Any conservator would have advised her to put away the scrub and paint brushes and leave well enough alone.   Minimal intervention is often the best approach.

The professional restoration experts emphasize that stone needs to breathe and should not be sealed with paint or epoxy.  Treatments that seal the stone actually promote deterioration, as moisture laden with minerals and salts migrates to the surface and cannot escape.  Eventually the stone becomes structurally weakened and collapses.  "Surface failure" is the term used to describe an irreparable, crumbling mess.

What took place in the local cemetery is tantamount to vandalism, but no one seems to acknowledge the fact that permanent damage was done - unwittingly, to be sure - by a group that had no business even attempting the task.  Indeed, the initiative of the amateur painter was applauded by church and community and received media coverage on CTV Atlantic.   

The Canadian designation of historic places does not go far enough to legally protect important spots from inappropriate alteration or demolition.  The general standards for preservation, rehabilitation and restoration listed on the Historic Places website start with a basic rule of thumb:  

"1. Conserve the heritage value of a place.  Do not remove or substantially alter its intact or repairable character-defining elements. "

A "before" photo from November, 2013

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