News & Events

    Cathedral Roof Replacement Phase Nearing Halfway Point

    In the three months since work on the roof of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception began, significant progress has been made with completion of the replacement expected to be before the end of October. And anyone driving into Saint John from the east can see the gleaming copper flashing that is defining anew the iconic landmark on the city’s skyline.

    The comprehensive restoration project will progress in phases. However, the roof was at the top of the list in terms of restoration priorities. Another winter season like the last two and the old roof would almost certainly have given up the ghost!

    Replacing a roof as expansive as the Cathedral’s – all 24,000 square feet of it! -- is a complex undertaking by any standard. But there are additional special considerations, given its status as a Provincial Heritage Place as no character defining elements of the building can be altered.

    It took several weeks for the scaffolding to be erected before the actual replacement could begin. The first stage of the project involved erecting the necessary scaffolding and staging. Then the old shingles had to be removed section by section. Once that was done, the roofers had to determine the integrity of the decking.

    “Very little of the original decking had to be replaced,” said John Sherwood, project advisor to the Executive Committee of the Cathedral Restoration Project. He said it was remarkable that the original wood was almost like new. Old lumber lasts far longer than the newer lumber used in construction today. Years ago, wood used for such projects was aged longer before it was cut and milled so it tends to be much more resistant to moisture. According to Sherwood, nearly all of the original decking lumber has been repurposed.

    Serge Robichaud, project contractor and owner of Evolution Roofing, said, “That wood was there for probably 160 years in some sections and it’s still in great shape.”

    Ventilation channels were then installed to ensure adequate air circulation and prevent heat build-up under the roofing materials, extending the new roof’s longevity. The first layer of the new roof is a vapor-permeable waterproof membrane, specially designed to allow the roof to breath.

    Mr. Robichaud said a major concern for any roof replacement project is making sure that no water gets inside as the job is underway. He noted that his crew took special care to avoid further damage to the building, taking such steps as covering the historic Casavant Frères pipe organ with a protective plastic shield.

    The materials and some of the techniques available today are superior to those that were available to the original builders of the cathedral. The roofing process has changed, said Robichaud, who added that the shingling technique is far better than methods used in the past.

    “We are now going to have a roof that is completely replaced,” said Sherwood. Over the decades, individual sections of the roof were patched or replaced but never before has the entire roof been replaced in its entirety. Differing ages and inconsistencies in past repairs to the roof have undoubtedly had further wearing effects on the building, Sherwood said.

    A damp spring has slowed their progress down but only slightly. “Although we haven’t had a lot of rain,” said Sherwood, “we’ve had a lot of damp weather.” The proper installation of the membrane and proper sealing of the roof require dry conditions. “If you’re trying to work on the membrane, that makes it a little bit slippery,” explained Sherwood. “When it’s wet, then it becomes a real hazard.”

    Nearly 20,000 shingles and 75,000 nails will be used on the 24,000 square-foot project. Top of the line, versatile and eco-friendly, these roofing shingles closely match the color of the old roofing and will withstand the elements common to the Port City. The new roof is expected to last for 30 or more years.

    The original copper flashing is being replaced with new copper that is being uniquely designed and will last a century, Robichaud said. Because the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a Provincial Heritage Place, any additions or changes must be as close to the originals as possible, he explained. For example, copper had to be replaced with copper. Such character defining elements cannot be easily changed in restorations of designated historic properties.

    Close to 5000 linear feet of new copper flashing will be installed. That’s nearly a mile of flashing and it is wider than what’s been removed. It has particularly interesting details which include the decorative way that the copper has been formed. “If you look at the crowns we’re doing,” said Robichaud, “it’s all molded. It’s very nice because you don’t normally see that. The man who does this has specialized tools and will maybe do one [project like this] in twenty years.”

    The cathedral’s restoration, combined with the impact it has had on families across the diocese, has garnered support from people of diverse backgrounds. John Leroux, noted New Brunswick architect and art historian, echoed this. “The cathedral transcends religious and socioeconomic affiliations. This is about preserving our heritage, our built heritage. The cathedral is the soul of the community.”

    Robichaud added that while this is his first time working on a historic property, he loves the challenge “because usually we work just on a regular roofing project but there’s a lot more to this project than simply fixing an old roof.” It’s a once in a lifetime project, he said.

    “It’s a heritage site in the city, part of what the Irish people, when they moved here from Ireland, put into this building. It’s significant that it be saved,” said Kay McLean, a parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish and a member of the Cathedral Restoration Project’s Leadership Team.

    The roof project is nearing its half-way mark as replacement of the sections on the east side of the roof are nearly complete. Work is expected to begin on the west side of the roof before the end of August.

    “We were supposed to finish around the end of September, but now we’re probably up to mid-October,” said Robichaud. “It was a six- to eight-month project and [staying on schedule] is so far, so good.” While admitting that the spells of wet weather have been a disappointment, he added, “We’re very happy… if the rest of the project goes as well, we won’t have an issue.”

    The roof replacement is a major component of the cathedral’s complete restoration. Geoff Flood, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Cathedral Restoration & Waterloo Village Revitalization Projects and the Board of Directors of the Cathedral Heritage Foundation said, “Once the roof is replaced, other priorities include repairing the bell tower, the masonry and the envelope of the building. Then we hope to preserve such historic treasures as the stained glass windows. When the envelope is secure, we can begin restoring the interior where considerable damage has occurred due to water infiltration.”

    “More than 1000 individuals, families and businesses have made financial contributions to the restoration project,” said Lynn Forbes Gautier, Executive Director of the Cathedral Restoration Project and Cathedral Heritage Foundation. “To date, we have raised twenty-seven percent of our financial goal of $10 Million in cash and in-kind contributions which is very close to the $3 Million point.” Fundraising for the restoration project began in earnest two years ago.

    “We are so very blessed to have received such support for this historic project from donors across the province, indeed from around the world,” Ms. Forbes Gautier said.


    Geoff Flood, Chairman of the Cathedral Restoration Project (left) discusses plans with Serge Robichaud (centre) and John Sherwood (right)

    The Cathedral’s new copper flashing gleams in the sunlight

    John Sherwood (left) Project Advisor for the Cathedral Restoration Project, reviews progress with Serge Robichaud of Evolution Roofing Ltd.

    Roofers secure the copper flashing.

    The cathedral’s roof replacement crew is installing close to one mile of new copper flashing.

    Contributions may be made using our secure online website. To ensure you receive a tax receipt, contributions by cheque are payable to Cathedral Restoration Project and can be mailed to:
    Cathedral Restoration Office, 1 Bayard Drive, Saint John, NB E2L 3L5