Sacred Heart Church is one of two parishes in Sydney, N.S., which will close this month. Photo by Terrence Rochon

Antigonish churches to close

  • June 12, 2014

Catholics in Sydney, N.S., will be losing two parishes this June as the Diocese of Antigonish begins another round of church closures on Cape Breton Island.

St. Anthony Daniel Church on Alexandra Street and Sacred Heart Church on George Street, “the mother church of Sydney,” according to Fr. Donald McGillivary, will hold their final Masses this month.

“The reason that we are closing churches is because, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say, of the population decline,” said McGillivary, director of pastoral planning in the diocese. “We went through a process where we looked at the demographics, we looked at the finances of the parish, we also looked at the ages of the priests and how many priests we had to serve our parishes.”

McGillivary said the average age of the diocese’s 41 priests, less than half the number of priests as two decades ago, is 61.5 years old with half a dozen of those “well into their 80s and one who is about to turn 90.” And the average age of the population, which has been declining in size as the coal and steel industries left the island, is not much younger in many places, including Sydney, the island’s capital.

“The priests are getting fewer and the priests are getting older and that is true also with the pop-ulation,” said McGillivary. “There are some places in Cape Breton where there are more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 24. The mean age of more than one area in Cape Breton is 50 and that is old in terms of population demographic.”

Next year the Sydney community will lose another parish with the closure of Immac-ulate Heart Church. And Sunday services at St. Anne’s Church in Membertou, Sydney’s aboriginal reserve, will discontinue next year.

Parishioners affected by the closures will amalgamate with the three churches that will remain active in Sydney.

This story has been playing out in Cape Breton for a number a years now.

Earlier this year Sydney’s Polish parish, St. Mary’s, faced closure for the second time in two years but community resistance has held the doors opened “for the time being,” according to Antigonish Bishop Brian Dunn.

New Waterford, one of Sydney’s neighbouring coastal townships, saw five of its six parishes close by August 2009 as a result of the diocese’s downsizing efforts, which has been a focus for pastoral planning since 2007.

“The process is extremely difficult as you might expect,” said Dunn. “It is extremely difficult because people are connected to their own buildings and their parishes.”

McGillivary, who once served as pastor at St. Anthony Daniel, elaborated on that sentiment.

“Most parishioners do not want to see the place close on their watch,” he said. “These are places where they had their children baptized, where their children were married, where they buried their loved ones, so it is hard. Parishioners who are really dedicated to their community and to their church, I think they have this sense that it is not really their church but rather that they are the stewards of the building, that it was bequeathed to them by their forebears and that they have to maintain it and keep it and be good stewards of it so they can pass it on to their children.”

Closed churches on Cape Breton Island face a number of fates. Some such as Sacred Heart will be taken over by community groups and turned into space for local residents, others are unoccupied and for sale while the rest will be torn down.

Downsizing is set to continue with Inverness and Pictou next in line to have parishes evaluated. 

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