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This article was published 27/10/2011 (2939 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
ELIE — Jean and Linda Aquin began to suspect something was different about their house while doing renovations shortly after taking ownership.
Jean was working in the kitchen and heard what he thought was Linda stomp up the stairs and suddenly stop. What's the matter, Jean yelled up.
Problem was, Linda was in the dining room, heard the same noise and wondered what Jean was up to. They were the only two people in the house.
Another time during renovations, Jean and a helper were passing through the second floor when they sniffed a powerful smell of old perfume. It was in the room that was a former chapel. The home is a 98-year-old former convent.
Jean thought Linda had spilled some perfume and called to her downstairs, wondering what had happened. Linda and a friend came up the stairs and could smell it, too, but said they hadn't spilled any perfume. The two men went downstairs to the main floor and smelled the perfume again, in the dining room this time. "The smell is down here now," Jean yelled up. Linda's reply gave him a jolt. The perfume smell was no longer in the chapel, she called back. "It had moved," said Jean.
A nun who once lived at the convent visited after the renovations and asked if they had noticed any strange happenings. When the couple told her about the perfume smell, she smiled and said it was a visitation from Mary, the mother of Jesus. The holy sister had experienced the smell one time previously — nuns aren't allowed makeup or perfume — and said it would return.
Haunted house? The Aquins don't think it's haunted at all. They think it's blessed. When an F5-strength tornado struck Elie in 2007, it destroyed several houses in its path right up to the former convent. It came up to the convent grounds, ripped out trees, then turned around and left. Jean recalled something else the visiting nun said. "She said a lot of sisters had passed away here and they were still here."
A writer of ghost stories from British Columbia recently stayed at their place and is writing a chapter on it in his next book. Also, University of Manitoba professor Louise Renee is writing a book on the occurrences at the former convent.
Yes, blessed. How else to explain how this seemingly white elephant of a building — it's 8,500 square feet — has become a successful enterprise for the Aquins, going by the name L'Auberge Clémence? The couple had tried to buy the abandoned convent for four years. They wanted to make it a bed and breakfast and tea house. The sisters didn't consider the plans realistic, especially as they knew the couple were broke.
Jean showed the abandoned convent to a priest one day. Two days later, the priest returned to give him a gift of an old religious statue of an unknown woman in flowing raiments. Four years passed and the nuns eventually relented and sold to the Aquins. Renovations were completed and one day a woman staying at the B&B offered to buy the statue for $500. That seemed like a lot for an old statue but the Aquins refused to sell. The woman persisted but they still refused. Finally, she confided she was a collector and wanted the statue because it was of a lesser-known religious figure, St. Martha. Jean's jaw dropped. The former convent was named St. Martha's Convent.
The priest who gave them the statue said he had no idea. It was just a statue he'd gathered from an abandoned church. The statue is over a century old and has piercing blue, glass eyes. "She ended up where she belonged," Jean said.
Whenever the Aquins need something, it appears at their door, the couple say. They figured it would take them five years to renovate the place. They had gutted the house when in walked a man wanting to rent a suite for 10 months. Sorry, the place wouldn't be open for several years, they told him. Then he made a financial offer the couple couldn't refuse, so they accommodated him.
Next, 13 men from a road construction crew wanted to stay, regardless of the renovations. Instead of five years, the former convent was fully renovated in six months. It was fully paid for — the Aquins paid just $2,000 down on the $60,000 purchase of the former convent — in less than five years.
Many other blessings preceded their grand opening. A week before, the interior walls were empty and the couple didn't know what to do. In walked local artist Estelle Regnier asking if she could hang her paintings inside.
Also, for their grand opening on Dec. 13, 2002, they wanted a nativity scene. Jean recalled his family had one his father built that was almost the length of a dining room table. The next day, his sister called to say she had the old nativity scene in storage and was going to sell it unless he wanted it. He wanted it.
Then they had to find the 32 pieces to fill the nativity. Make that 31 because they had one piece, a shepherd the nuns had left behind. These are larger than normal nativity pieces. They're like small statues. A woman in town said she had such a set in her attic and they could borrow it if they wanted. The Aquins went to Winnipeg and shopped all day but couldn't find suitable nativity pieces. Upon arriving home, they found three large boxes on their landing. Jean put his hand inside one of the boxes and blindly pulled out the exact same shepherd piece the nuns had left behind. The three boxes contained the complete 32-piece nativity set.
Linda ran into the woman in Elie the next day and thanked her for bringing over the pieces but the woman didn't know what she was talking about. The nativity pieces were still in her attic. Jean and Linda figured out their priest friend must have heard they were looking for nativity pieces and delivered them. They were right. But the priest had his own story. He'd heard on Wednesday they were looking for the pieces but he didn't have any. Then a woman knocked on his door Friday evening. She was visiting from the United States and wondered if anyone from the church could use these three large boxes of 32 nativity pieces she had in her vehicle. The priest delivered the set the next day while Jean and Linda were shopping for nativity pieces in Winnipeg. Some people cry when they hear that story, said Linda.
"There's a good vibe in this house. This house wanted to have someone in it. It wanted to be reborn," Jean maintains.
"In my experience, to tell you the truth, I wasn't into this sort of stuff," said Linda. But too many strange things have happened. She recalled cleaning upstairs and had her arms full when two doors opened at the exact same time and the exact same speed to let her through. It was as if spirits were trying help. "If it was one door, I could write it off as just the wind," she said.
Door openings are a category unto themself. Residents would sometimes mention that one of the suite doors on the third floor seemed to open by itself. So the Aquins decided to spend the night in the room to see for themselves. Linda went to sleep early. Later, Jean crept into the room, closed the door and climbed into bed. He heard a click the instant his head hit the pillow. He opened his eyes and saw the door opened.
Later, I went to the third floor, locked the door in question and shook it back and forth hard four or five times. I would have had to break the door down to get it to open.
Another category is doorbell stories. If you go to L'Auberge Clémence Inn you can see beside the door the outline of where the doorbell used to be. Jean installed a doorbell during renovations but it started going off occasionally and always at night. They assumed it was the work of pranksters, and soon, instead of answering the door, they would look out windows instead, trying to spot the kids running away. They couldn't spot anything.
They even put sand in front of the door to register the pranksters' footprints. But the doorbell rang several nights later and there were no footprints. They checked and double-checked the wiring. The doorbell would still go off, whether it was hot or dry outside, raining or snowing. Finally, they dismantled the doorbell.
"People can be very skeptical about those things unless they happen to them, and they're very easy to dismiss," said Louise Renee, who is close to completing her book on the former convent.
"But I really do think that place is special. It's definitely a good place, and serene. There's nothing scary. It's all the opposite of that."
All manner of guests have stayed at L'Auberge Clémence Inn, 30 kilometres west of Winnipeg. Former premier Gary Filmon and some friends had a private dinner there not long ago. Hockey legend Jean Béliveau, who was a Catholic altar boy as a youth, stayed overnight this past summer. They have had visitors from around the globe. It has two private suites, plus five rooms on the top floor with a shared bathroom. Units rent for $50 to $150 per night.
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.
Updated on Friday, October 28, 2011 at 1:17 PM CDT: adds link to P.O.V.: Bless this house