Many Catholic churches have been shuttered prompted by shifts in financial or democraphic fortunes. Photos from Google Street View
  • March 28, 2019

A third of Canada’s Christian architecture, some 9,000 churches, will close in the next 10 years, according to the National Trust for Canada.

“It’s definitely going to be a bad thing,” architect Roberto Chiotti told The Catholic Register . “You know, it’s our theology in stone.”

Robert Pajot of the National Trust is more or less resigned to the fact that a lot of Canada’s buildings with crosses on them, Catholic and Protestant, are becoming surplus to the needs of society.

“Yes, we’re going to lose some. Yes, some may be commercial, some may go to condos,” he said.

There are approximately 27,000 places of worship across Canada, which means about one-third of them will be sold, demolished or abandoned over the next decade. But it is not all bad news. In the Archdiocese of Toronto, for example, no closures are anticipated. It has built nearly a church per year since the turn of the 21st century.

“The Archdiocese of Toronto is blessed to have a large immigrant population engaged in their faith locally, part of the reason we celebrate Mass in more than 35 languages each week,” said archdiocese spokesperson Neil MacCarthy.

That’s a stark contrast to rural and smalltown Nova Scotia, where the Diocese of Antigonish has already closed 30 per cent of its churches over the last dozen years. Diocesan spokesperson Fr. Don MacGillivray expects more closures are coming.

“I’m not a demographer by any stretch of the imagination, but you know people have to mostly leave for work,” he said.

For five years MacGillivray was the director of pastoral planning for his diocese, a job that put him in the position of closing St. Anthony Daniel in Sydney, N.S., while he was still pastor there.

“My philosophy always is, we need to do this in an orderly fashion where we can be pro-active rather than be up against the wall and have to be reactive,” he said. “Do you let a place go to the point where they (parishioners) just can’t support it anymore? Or do you try to plan?”

The story is similar in New Brunswick and Quebec, where large numbers of churches have been shuttered or are slated to close. Dozens of Catholic and Protestant churches in small towns across Western Canada and in southwestern Ontario also have been closing for years.

Under canon law, final decisions about closing churches, amalgamating parishes and finding other uses for buildings belongs solely to the bishop. But in Antigonish, MacGillivray always tried to involve the worshipping community. He would meet with the parish, lay out the financial and demographic realities, then ask for suggestions.

“We considered the submissions and we came up with a proposed plan, invited submissions again, and then made a decision,” he said. “Mind you, when it’s my church being closed, you know it’s problematic. This just isn’t an easy thing to do.”

In places like Antigonish, it isn’t just the declining number of parishioners or their ability to pay for the repairs and maintenance an old church requires. There’s also a dwindling number of priests. However, MacGillivray disputes the idea that a priest shortage is driving decisions to amalgamate parishes and close churches.

“I think it can be argued we don’t have a shortage of personnel. We have an overabundance of infrastructure,” he said.

When St. Anthony Daniel and Sacred Heart closed in Sydney in 2014 there were six parishes in an area where no church was more than three kilometres from another.

“We just didn’t need that many buildings,” MacGillivray said.

In the countryside, Antigonish must answer how and when worship will happen at all the little churches dotting the landscape.

“If a priest has to travel to different places, what is a reasonable amount of travelling for a guy who is close to being considered a senior citizen, or indeed is a senior citizen?” he asked. “We do have a question of shrinking resources, for all kinds of reasons, and we have to marshall them in a prudent and responsible way.”

For mainline Protestant denominations — largely white, elderly and non-immigrant — finding new uses for old churches is a cross-country consulting job for Kendra Fry.

“It is bad news from a faith community perspective, in that it indicates a lack of commitment to faith communities as the locale where people identify community,” she told The Catholic Register.

Fry works for Regeneration Works, a joint project with the National Trust for Canada. If a building has served the community for a century or more, Fry believes it should continue to bring people together — whether for concerts, yoga, child care or charitable work.

“My pitch is about a place of faith as a place to diminish the loneliness and the isolation of society,” she said.

Catholics have not been beating a path to Fry’s door because canon law and Catholic culture make it difficult to imagine a parish as part of a shared-use building.

“In accordance with Catholic ecclesiology and canon law, it is the local diocesan bishop or eparchial bishop who is responsible for church buildings in his diocese or eparchy,” Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops spokesperson Lisa Gall said in an e-mail.

The CCCB “is following the issue of church closures with great interest and as part of its role provides a forum for the bishops of Canada to discuss challenges and opportunities that can be involved when faced with the possibility of decommissioning churches,” she said.

In Antigonish, cashing in on surplus real estate is a major consideration. The diocese is still paying off a class-action lawsuit related to clerical sexual abuse.

“Of course, all our obligations there have been met,” MacGillivary said. “However, we still have an outstanding bill, a loan. So all excess real estate is going to satisfy that loan.”

Last year the Vatican held a conference on decommissioning and reusing church buildings, then issued 14 pages of guidelines for bishops. Holding onto old buildings for the sake of holding on is not a good idea, according to the guidelines.

“Churches which are abandoned or in a dangerous state actually constitute a counter- testimony,” the guidelines said.

The Vatican’s view is that if the community wants to preserve buildings for their historical and heritage value, they must find ways to pay for them. In Canada, Quebec is the only province doing that with its Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Quebec, a fund to renovate and restore churches.

Bishops and pastors have often seen a heritage designation as a disaster for an old church. It means a municipality or province that will pay nothing for a building’s upkeep can dictate renovations and impose restrictions that may chase away possible buyers.

But even the heritage movement doesn’t always regard heritage designation as the best solution. Pajot calls it a “blunt instrument to slow down the decision making process, to allow the community to get involved in the discussion.”

As an architect, Chiotti believes Catholics can and should express what they believe in their buildings.

“As faith-based people, we have something to contribute to the world,” he said. “I think our churches are again theology in stone. They are beacons. Hopefully, we can continue to transform them to ensure they are relevant, viable and support the work, the evolving work, of parishes in responding to the real world.”

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Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.