Quebec’s churches need miracle

source: The Star, Feb 28, 2009

Parishes can't afford to keep them, no one wants to buy them – even at fire-sale prices

 


February 28, 2009


QUEBEC BUREAU CHIEF


MONTREAL
– It might be quite beautiful, with its golden cross next to the
steeple, its triumphal arches inside, its extraordinary Casavant organ
presiding, but that hasn't stopped Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours from
steadily becoming abandoned. Barely 100 seats in its pews built for
1,000 are taken on Sundays, and that's on a good day.

"We take in
maybe $100 or $125 during the collection," says Father Pierre Charbot,
shrugging. Not nearly enough to even pay the heating.

As a
result, the church is for sale. But the west-end edifice has been on
the market for more than a year, and so far, no one's buying.

Officials are still hopeful, but as of now, the majestic grey-stone church is a white elephant.

The
fire sale of Catholic churches in Quebec continues unabated; they are
victims of a population that, more than elsewhere in Canada, has turned
its back on organized religion.

Fewer than 10 per cent actually attend mass.

This
has meant that virtually no parish has been free from the dilemma of
what to do with a church it doesn't want to part with, but can no
longer afford.

Some churches have found new lives as community
centres, libraries and social housing projects; others as condos,
factories and even a rock-climbing gym.

And though the
provincial government has stepped in to help, a new headache is
creeping up. Parishes are facing the prospect of finding no buyers for
their churches, not even the municipalities of which they're a part,
and so they're being increasingly abandoned, barricaded and demolished.

"There
are churches that are not finding takers and it will be necessary to
barricade them," said Germain Tremblay of the Montreal-based Assembly
of Catholic Bishops of Quebec. "Even in selling them for $1, it's
happening that no buyer is interested in the churches for sale. This is
new."

Well more than 100 churches have been sold in the last
decade, a very conservative estimate considering that in the dioceses
of Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke alone, 74 have disappeared in
roughly that time frame. However, that's only three of 25 dioceses in
Quebec. The exact number sold has never been tabulated.

"It's
sad, but it's reality," said Gérald Baril, spokesperson for the
Conference of Catholic Bishops of Canada. "People don't care much about
spirituality and don't care much about the church."

"We simply
have too many churches under our charge," said Rémy Gagnon, who advises
parish administrative counsels for the diocese of Quebec City. "And so
for those judged in excess, we must mobilize all the organizations,
public and private, to propose new uses for the buildings we can save."

A
few years ago, Quebec did an inventory of churches with the most
historic value. The province also launched a program to help parish
administrative councils, or fabriques, pay for 70 per cent of the costs
of keeping the churches standing, but only for those built before 1945.

In 2006, concern that the province's religious history was in
"great peril" led a National Assembly committee to call on the Liberal
government to halt the sale of churches. The then-culture minister
refused, saying it would put local parishes in financial dire straits.
The sales continued.

A church's historic significance does not
mean it will be saved. Take the case of the dual-steepled Church of
Saint-Eustache, north of Montreal, whose stones still bear traces of
cannon fire by the British in 1837. Quebec Patriote leader Jean-Olivier
Chenier and 100 of his followers died there in the decisive battle.

The
church's maintenance has become so cost prohibitive for the parish,
they're giving it away. The fabrique's president, Nycole Pepper, said
it must, however, remain a church. But to make it viable, they're
considering turning it into a music recording hall, because of its good
acoustics.

More churches have been sold in the region of
Sherbrooke than anywhere in the province because, officials there say,
an activist bishop in the 1950s wanted to make sure a church was
accessible in even the smallest place. Twenty-five churches have
changed hands, some for $1, in the last few years.

And it's
also in this diocese where the most varied uses for unwanted churches
have been realized. One has been turned into a rock-climbing school and
gym. Another is a concert hall. Still another is a factory. There are
community halls and the finishing touches are underway on a library.

Eight
of the 14 churches sold in the Quebec City region in recent times have
gone into private hands, and two have been demolished.

"What
should we expect for the next 20 years? Well, remember that the
majority of people in the parishes nowadays are in their sixties to
eighties," said Louis-Philippe Desrosiers, who's in charge of selling
churches for Montreal's parishes.

"People are not interested in the life of their souls anymore. Less and less of them means less and less churches."

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