Former Our Lady of Grace Shrine in Columbia sold, being transformed into regional arts centerBy JOHN KOZIOL
Union Leader Correspondent July 29. 2018 9:29PM
COLUMBIA — A former Catholic shrine here is being transformed into a regional venue for the performing, visual and theatrical arts, thanks to prayers and generous donors.
Earlier this month, the Colebrook-based Great North Woods Committee for the Arts (GNWCA), Connecticut River Artist Group and the Carriage Lane Players finalized with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) the $100,000 purchase of the 8.9-acre parcel on the west side of Route 3.
Until July 1, 2014, it had operated as the Our Lady of Grace Shrine.
A 29-acre lot across the road that was home to a statue-filled devotional garden was purchased by a separate party.
The Great North Woods Center for the Arts “is not merely a venue, but will be a campus, in effect, where we envision classes, workshops, indoor and outdoor events and more,” said GNWCA president Charlie Jordan in an e-mail.
Jordan, who is a longtime journalist, and with his wife Donna, the editor and publisher, respectively, of the Colebrook Chronicle newspaper, is basking in the possibilities and taking advance bookings for the art center.
The property is in turnkey condition and mortgage-free, the latter made possible by the generosity of Joseph and Sis Wallace Dugas.
The Dugases, who reside in Barnstable Harbor, Mass., donated the entire purchase amount for the shrine property. Sis Wallace Dugas’ family has a long history in Columbia.
The property, according to the sales prospectus, consists of a three-story, 12-bedroom residence; a two-story workshop; and a chapel/church building with scrolled, wooden pews capable of holding 300 people, beneath which is a dining hall and kitchen.
The Jordans think that the workshop building, known as “St. Joseph’s Workshop” and including a two-bay garage; heavy-duty lifts; a former print shop; and office space, can be open and in use by the end of the year.
Redevelopment of the residence and the church building will proceed as funds become available.
It was a lack of financial support, as well as a paucity of pilgrims and French/English-speaking priests that led to the closure of the Our Lady of Grace Shrine.
The OMI acquired what became the shrine in 1922 when the order bought the former Hampshire Inn, which itself had begun life as the Parsons Farm. The OMI turned the inn into a junior seminary and then into the Our Lady of Grace Novitiate.
In 1948, the Most Rev. Matthew Francis Brady, Bishop of the Diocese of Manchester, dedicated the Our Lady of Grace Shrine and also inaugurated the perpetual novena to Our Lady of Grace. In 1976, the shrine held its inaugural “Blessing of the Bikes” during which riders invoked Our Lady of Grace, who is their patroness, to protect and guide them on the road.
When it was first offered for sale, the asking price for the combined shrine property was $523,000. The east and west parcels were subsequently separated and offered individually, with the latter being reduced from $225,000 to $100,000.
With Mount Monadnock in Vermont as a backdrop, ample parking, several, large open spaces, and a small, sunken amphitheater just outside the church, the shrine will be a great home to the Great North Woods Committee for the Arts, the Connecticut River Artist Group and the Carriage Lane Players, said Charlie Jordan.
Founded in 2005, the Committee for the Arts has showcased many musicians from around the North Country, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, New England and the world, hosting some 500 performances, many at the Tillotson Center in Colebrook.
While a beloved place, the Tillotson Center is also a busy one, with a constantly-changing cast of users, including schools and local governments, a fact that has at times, caused difficulty for groups like CRAG that had to assemble and disassemble their sets in a hurry.
The Great North Woods Center for the Arts has plenty of room for CRAG, said Charlie Jordan, as well as for a museum that will celebrate the arts in the North Country. Already acquired for the museum are seats from the Chase Barn Theater in Whitefield, which is the spiritual predecessor of the Weathervane Theatre, and items from Frost Place, the poet Robert Frost’s former home in Franconia.
Jordan said many people have joined together to make the arts center possible, beginning with the Oblates, whom he said had prayed to find the right buyer for the shrine.
In an email, Brother Richard Cote, OMI, who assisted with the sale of items from the shrine’s residence, cafeteria/kitchen and religious-goods store, but not of the property itself, said while he couldn’t speak for the Oblate Administration in Washington D.C., he did agree with Charlie Jordan that the OMI had been searching and praying to find a “deserving buyer.”
After five years, “our prayers were indeed answered when the Great North Woods Committee for the Arts came forward,” wrote Cote, adding that “For 92 years the Missionary Oblates have been close to the people of the Great North Woods and the sale of the property to the GNWCA will benefit people of all faiths and walks of life everywhere.”
The GNWCA, together with the Tillotson Center, “is helping make the Colebrook area a major arts center in the state of New Hampshire and will ideally fuel tourism in our Great North Woods region,” said Jordan.