COLUMBIA – The Great North Woods Center for the Arts, which has brought some 500 shows to the North Country over the past 10 years, has purchased historic property which for years was part of the Our Lady of Grace Shrine.
The regional arts organization is moving forward with plans to transform the three structures and eight and a half acres on the west side of Route 3 in Columbia into a multi-arts center.
The GNWCA, formed 15 years ago during the Upper Connecticut Valley Community Coalition Summit in May 2003, had as its mission to bring arts opportunities to the North Country and to find a permanent home for the arts community.
“This purchase allows us to fulfill our goal set 15 years ago,” said GNWCA President Charlie Jordan this week. “We are thrilled to at last find our own home which will exist to support our growing arts endeavors.”
Formed as the Great North Woods Center for the Arts, the GNWCA in recent years adopted the name the Great North Woods Committee for the Arts as it worked to bring top performers from around the globe to the North Country.
The original scope of the organization was multi-disciplined, covering not only the performing arts, but the visual and theatrical arts as well.
“With the development of the Connecticut River Artisans Group (CRAG) and the Carriage Lane Players (CLP) as two independent arts organizations, we refocused our efforts in the performing arts and supported the newer visual and theatrical arts group that emerged,” Jordan said.
He explained that with the growth of the arts in the region, the three groups still lacked their own center where they could store their supplies, have their own office space and conference room in the region. “This purchase gives all three organizations a place to ‘hang our hat,’ so to speak,” Jordan explained.
Last September the GNWCA signed a purchase and sales agreement with the Shrine property’s owner, the Oblate of Mary Immaculate of Lowell, Mass. The GNWCA reports that when the first news stories reported on the group’s interest in the property, support for saving the historic property and developing the new home for the arts was almost immediate.
The GNWCA began hearing from many people in the community as well as those with North Country connections offering support.
“Among those who reached out was Joseph Dugas and his wife Sis Wallace Dugas, who called to say that they felt this was the best use for the property they had heard.
Mrs. Dugas is a member of the Wallace family, who have deep roots in Columbia. The couple, who now live in Barnstable Harbor, Mass., offered to come forward with the entire $100,000 the GNWCA needed to close the deal.
On Monday morning of this week the Dugases met with the board of the GNWCA and realtor Odette Crawford of Thibeault Realty, representing the Oblates, to transact the purchase at the offices of Waystack Frizzell in Colebrook.
“We are excited to have this opportunity to turn this historic property into a vibrant facility here on the doorstep to Colebrook,” Jordan said. “Joe and Sis Dugas said that they hope their gift to the GNWCA will encourage others to help with donations to move quickly forward with the work needed to get the property opened to the public.”
In fact, two others have come forward with sizable funds. David Brunault of Colebrook, who grew up next door to the Shine when his parents ran the Northern Comfort Motel, gave the GNWCA $5,000 last fall and earlier this month James “Russ” Fitch of Clarksville handed the GNWCA a check for $10,000 to be put toward the project, in honor of his late wife, Fredda Cole.
“Russ and Fredda attended many GNWCA shows together and Russ remains a devoted supporter of the arts in our region,” Jordan said.
In recent months, the GNWCA was joined in the Shrine project by both the Carriage Lane Players and the Connecticut River Artisans Group–which will also be making the new center their permanent home.
CRAG is already looking at transforming the former print shop in the basement of the St. Joseph’s Building into an artists’ workshop. The second floor offers a large common space to be shared by all three groups, as well as an office and conference room.
The Carriage Lane Players have been in need of storage space, a place to construct sets for their plays, as well as a place to set up for players without needing to remove the set between shows. All this is possible with the new partnership at the Shrine property.
Plans for the front road-size residence building are still in flux. Here is where the Oblate Brothers lived, with some 14 bedrooms and a large kitchen and dining area.
The showcase of the property is the 300-plus seat former chapel, which was part of the original Parsons Farm. The 1890 scrollwork pews and stained-glass windows will continue to be a part of the former chapel’s interior.
This area will be turned into a theater to be used by both the Great North Woods Committee for the Arts and Carriage Lane Players. A smaller area just outside the main chapel presents itself as an ideal setting for a smaller performance venue and art gallery.
Another bright and cheery chapel off the first-floor entrance can also serve as an art gallery. Parts of the back barn area can serve as a place for CLP to build their sets and the network of rooms above could hold the group’s growing wardrobe and props department.
Meanwhile, the grounds have been well kept through the efforts of Sheila Parkhurst over recent years and can be expected to host any number of outdoor events including concerts, art shows and community events. “We will have some of the best parking available in the region, thanks to the planning of the Oblate Fathers in the past,” Jordan said.
The property was first developed in the early 19th Century as the Parsons Family Farm, one of the first large farms in the North Country. The Parsons family owned at one point the Dix House in Dixville Notch, which eventually became the Balsams Hotel.
After selling the Dix House, the Parsons turned their sprawling family homestead (dating back to the 1840s) into a large hotel, eventually known as the Hampshire Inn, from about 1897-1910. The property was acquired by the Franco-American Province of the Oblates in 1922, a religious French order founded in 1816.
The order established a seminary for young men entering the ministry until 1941, when it became the senior Novitiate, until 1969. In its day it drew thousands of religious pilgrims from all over North America, as the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace (which was established in 1948 as part of the grounds).
Beginning in 1976 it hosted the yearly motorcycle blessing, attracting more thousands to Columbia each June. The Shrine was finally closed in 2014. Besides serving as a campus for an arts center, plans also call for a historic museum display in the complex tracing the deep-rooted history of this property.
Speaking about the acquisition, GNWCA Vice President and Treasurer Bette Guerin said this week, “Throughout the 15 years of the GNWCA’s presence in the North Country, we have worked diligently to create an arts culture and to bring top-notch entertainment to the region.
“That dedication and commitment, along with the support of other arts-minded individuals and entities, will be an integral part of this exciting project. Our vision to create an arts-centric and supportive environment, to form positive synergistic relationships and to enable opportunities for a myriad of arts-related functions, will be the catalyst for creating an innovative center that celebrates the arts in all its forms.”
The GNWCA has already reached out to individuals who have expressed an interest in helping with work and efforts. “This is all about our region and we’d love to hear from you with your thoughts and suggestions and, of course, your financial support,” Jordan said. The mailing address for the GNWCA is P. O. Box 302, Colebrook, NH 03576. Questions can be directed to 237-9302 or 246-8998.
A capital campaign fund is being set up. All funds will go directly into the capital improvements at the property and project. The buildings and property remained in surprisingly good condition, a testament to the Oblates attention to detail over the years, but work will need to be done to upgrade the infrastructure. The GNWCA says it remains dedicated to preserving the character and beauty of the former Shrine property as it moves forward.