Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Church reminder of life and death

St. Gianna's building columbarium for cremated remains

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Winnipeg's youngest and newest Roman Catholic parish may soon be home to the saints.

Plans to build a $14 million church have been expanded to include a columbarium housing 8,000 urns in the lower level, says Rev. Darren Gurr.

"Having the columbarium (in the building) really emphasizes the fact that in worship the living and the dead become one," says the priest of St. Gianna's Roman Catholic Church, which currently worships in rented space in a school.

A columbarium is a place for permanent storage of cremated remains. The term comes from the compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons, and underground columbariums were common in ancient Rome.

With 4,000 niches, each 25 centimetres by 25 centimetres, each housing two urns, St. Gianna's columbarium is thought to be the largest of its kind in Canada, says Monique Gauthier, chair of the columbarium committee.

"We couldn't build a cemetery outside, but we could have something inside," she says of the congregation's plans to construct a church at the corner of McGillivray Boulevard and Columbia Drive, just west of the retail development on Kenaston Boulevard. To date, $4.7 million of the construction costs have been raised in cash and pledges. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2010.

The cost of the niches range from $3,500 to $5,000, depending on location within the building, she says, with folks buying them prior to construction receiving a 30 per cent discount. The niches are stacked up to nine high, and are arranged around the overhead baptismal font, which will have a glass floor to let light into the lower level.

Just days after the project was officially unveiled, Gauthier says she's had a dozen calls expressing interest in purchasing a niche, indicating their research was correct that Winnipeg needed more Catholic cemeteries.

Building a columbarium is about more than providing a final resting place for departed loved ones, and also involves a theological perspective on the cycle of life, says Gurr.

"When we go to church, we should be confronted with the realities of life and death, because that's what brings meaning to life."

Cemeteries have long been located adjacent to church property, but less so in urban centres, where space is at a premium and zoning bylaws may not allow cemeteries. Gurr says separating a graveyard from a congregation means people may have lost the connection between life and death.

Parishioners in two of Winnipeg's cathedrals have long walked through or past a graveyard on their way into church. A large cemetery dating back to 1820 surrounds St. John's Anglican Cathedral in the North End, giving congregants and visitors a snapshot of church history and Manitoba's history when they stop to read the grave markers and memorials.

"It reminds us of our own mortality in an age where a number of people deny their mortality," says Rev. Bob Osborne, dean of the cathedral. "We act like we're going to live forever."

In addition to the four-acre cemetery, which still has a few available plots, the cathedral also has a 200-niche columbarium in its lower level. About 100 are still empty, selling at $1,600 each, says Osborne.

He says the cathedral is planning to build an exterior columbarium on the cemetery grounds, which would incorporate a labyrinth, which visitors could walk for reflection and meditation.

Across the city, the cemetery at the west side of the ruins of St. Boniface Basilica also pre-dates the official start of the province, with the first burial in 1818.

That cemetery is also reveals a history of Manitoba, housing the graves of Métis leader Louis Riel, Chief One Arrow, early settlers such as J. B. Lagimodière and M.A. Gaboury, and bishops Langevin, Taché, and Provencher.

"The cemetery is a very historical cemetery because it goes back to the beginning (of the province)," says Rev. Marcel Damphousse, priest of St. Boniface Cathedral, located just east of the ruins. "In that sense it brings people to think about their ancestors."

Two other nearby cemeteries now serve Roman Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, with the one at the cathedral nearly full, says building and cemeteries manager Mark Gautron.

He says the cathedral has plans to construct a 500-niche exterior columbarium outside the basilica ruins.

Gurr looks forward to his future church building standing within the long tradition of being the spiritual home for the living and the physical home for the dead.

"It's right in the context of a living, gathering community," he says of the columbarium underneath the worship space. "Every time the congregation gathers to worship there, the dead are part of a living, worshiping community."


Living Waters Columbarium


The first of its kind in Canada, Living Waters Columbarium will be located within St. Gianna's Roman Catholic Church. At the heart of the columbarium is the baptismal font in which Christians are inaugurated into the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

The columbarium features more than 4,000 burial niches with unique family chapels. At the centre of the columbarium, the life-giving waters of the baptismal font, are illuminated as daylight pours through the waters of the font into the columbarium below.

An atmosphere of reverence and dignity is further heightened with a series of stained-glass windows. The columbarium ensures that burial is within the context of a living and praying community, as the beloved dead are perpetually remembered in the community's prayer and worship.




Deceased remembered during the month of November in the liturgical life of the parish community.

Annual liturgical celebrations for the family and friends of the deceased on Mother's Day, Father's Day and during the Christmas and Easter seasons.

Personal access to the columbarium with secure swipe card during established visiting hours.

On-site ministry to assist with the ritual of entombment.

On-site reception and lunch facilities.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2009 B6

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