Another round of church closures appears to be on the horizon for the Catholic archdiocese of Halifax- Yarmouth.
“We have a problem with attendance and with financial issues of the church,” said Ervin Doak, a retired Saint Mary’s University professor, and a parishioner and volunteer at St. Thomas Aquinas and Canadian Martyrs parish in central Halifax.
“All these parishes are confronting problems with aging populations and the contributions aren’t coming in like they should be,” Doak said. “We have structures that have to be repaired. We have fewer priests, so you run into administrative problems. It’s sad.”
The sadness washing over empty pews has spurred Archbishop Anthony Mancini to take some action. In a letter to be read from the altars of all diocesan churches at weekend masses, the archbishop focuses on a part of the 2017-2020 pastoral plan called New Parishes: Stronger Together.
“The new model of parishes will be one canonical parish with multiple sites where pastoral care and ministries would be delivered in collaboration, to local communities of proximity, where human and financial resources will be shared,” Mancini's letter reads.
“What will this look like? At this stage it’s a work in progress and we don’t know yet.”
Spokeswoman Aurea Sadi said the archdiocese would be withholding comment until after the letter is shared with parishioners. But Blair Beed, a Halifax historian who has been working on the restoration effort at St. Patrick’s Church on Brunswick Street, said the plan seems to be to reduce the number of parishes in peninsular Halifax from six to two by 2020.
“Historically, we were a place of universities and hospitals and schools and boat clubs,” Beed said. “We’re downsizing.
“I know it has to happen. I’m not really a part of that. I’m down at St. Patrick’s hoping we can keep an historic building but I’m not sure how that works now.”
The six parishes on the peninsula, aside from St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, are St. Patrick’s, St. Thomas Aquinas on Jubilee Road, St. Theresa’s on North Street, St. Agnes on Mumford, St. Catherine’s on Bayers Road and St. Mother Teresa on Normandy Drive.
“Somebody has to make a decision,” Bead said. “The majority of the people made a decision by going out the door. There’s a famous little joke that they left because it was too hot, it was too cold, the pews were too hard, the pews were too soft, the sermon was too long, I didn’t like that particular priest, that person looked at me the wrong way. They get into the scandal stuff.
“It’s a lot of ways of saying, ‘I don’t want to go (to mass).’” Bead suspects a similar downsizing will happen on the other side of the harbour, where there are eight parishes in Dartmouth and Cole Harbour.
“You do have a lot of buildings close together,” he said. “Whereas from Ecum Secum to wherever, they are spaced apart.”
Amalgamating parishes is not an easy or seamless task, as Doak can attest to from the blending of St. Thomas Aquinas with Canadian Martyrs.
“A lot of people were attached to Canadian Martyrs,” Doak said. “They took that bitterness with them. I suppose the assumption was that they would move right over to St. Thomas Aquinas and the buildings there but that didn’t happen with a lot of people. I heard some people say ‘I’m going to go to St. Theresa’s’ or ‘I’m going to go off to St. Agnes,’ so they sort of scattered around. If it comes down to the point where there is only going to be two parishes, it doesn’t matter where they go.”
Canadian Martyrs and St. Thomas Aquinas amalgamated in 2008. The half-hectare Canadian Martyrs property on Inglis Street near Saint Mary’s University was eventually sold and the church torn down.
“There is always resistance on the part of individuals who don’t want to give up their space and be put in with somebody else’s,” Doak said of blending parishes. “You are up against a people problem there. It will be a painful process, that’s for sure.
“Economically, financially, administratively, whatever way you look at it, this has to be done. It’s unfortunate.”
Bead said it’s not a problem unique to the area or the church.
“Having been in England just now and seeing signs on church buildings ‘Use it or Lose it,’ it’s not just a Halifax problem. It’s not Catholic. It’s everybody.
“People talked about we need women priests, we need married priests, but the Anglicans and Lutherans, they’ve all done the married and the women and it still hasn’t changed what’s been going on. It’s only in some places where they have strong ethnic groups that they keep numbers in the building.”
Neither is it a new problem in the Catholic Church. In a 2004 report called Forward in Faith, the archdiocese said it needed to restructure parishes to reflect the realities of dwindling attendance, population growth in the Halifax area and population drop in rural areas, fewer priests and soaring operating costs. A 15-person committee was tasked to study the problems and devise a plan to inject life back into church. The result was amalgamated parishes and closed churches.
This time around, the archdiocese has asked for submissions from the regions by June 30 on what the New Parishes: Stronger Together could look like. By Jan. 1, the transition will begin and the implementation of the new-look parishes should be complete by Dec. 31, 2020.