The Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist will remain in the hands of the Catholic Church. Photo from Wikipedia

Historic St. John’s basilica saved in auction

  • June 22, 2022

The iconic Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, Nfld., is poised to remain a sacred place of worship for Catholics for years to come.

A bid worth “north of $3 million” jointly filed by the Basilica Heritage Foundation, St. Bonaventure’s College and the St. Bon’s Forum Corporation to acquire the cathedral, the Jesuit postsecondary institute and St. Bon’s Forum arena was greenlighted by accounting firm Ernst & Young Inc. on June 13.

All that remains in the process is for the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador to approve the winning bid.

The basilica and multiple Church properties were put on the auction block to fund compensation for survivors of sexual and physical abuse at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. They will receive the more than $3 million raised by the sale of the basilica and the other parishes. In 2020, the Archdiocese of St. John’s was deemed vicariously liable by the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal for the abusive actions done at Mount Cashel, which was operated by the Christian Brothers of Ireland, who went bankrupt and were unable to cover the court-ordered compensation for victims.

The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in December and proceeded to put over two dozen parish properties, including 18 churches, up for auction in March to raise funds to compensate the victims.

Rob Blackie is one of the committee members for the groups that purchased the trio of properties. He related to The Catholic Register parishioner reactions to the cathedral maintaining its status as a holy place for years to come.

“There were feelings of total elation and shock in a couple of cases,” said Blackie. “There were definitely some tears shed by people who were totally overwhelmed with relief. My personal feeling is one of gratitude, relief and with a little bit of euphoria mixed in there.”

Blackie expects that the court approval “will be a formality” considering Ernst & Young Inc. already rendered its seal of endorsement. He added that the trio of joint bidders is already working towards implementing ambitions for these properties, including “a multi-year, multi-million-dollar campaign about improving the programming options and improving aspects of the buildings,”  as well as imporovements to the hockey rink. 

“We’ve already psychologically shifted towards how we plan that campaign and how to pivot our fundraising efforts towards these long-term goals.”

One question Blackie does not know the answer to at this early moment is what the relational dynamic will be between the new basilica ownership group and the Archdiocese of St. John’s.

“The Archbishop (Peter Hundt) worked very closely with the foundation on these plans and his office is currently in the basilica complex right now. There is a little bit of uncertainty about the future of the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s, the formality, just because of the nature of the proceedings and the assets to cover the claims. But the basilica is Catholic and St. Bonaventure’s is a Jesuit school and those things are certainly going to continue. I would expect a high degree of cooperation.”

Hundt wrote in an email that the archdiocese will not comment on any of the bid outcomes until the court makes its final rulings.

“All property sales remain subject to the approval of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador,” wrote Hundt. “The monitor will prepare and submit a report, inclusive of recommendations regarding bids, for the court’s consideration in the near term. We will not be commenting on the monitor’s recommendations until they have received court approval.”

The congregation at Holy Rosary Parish in Portugal Cove also received glad tidings this past week as it rallied to save its 191-year-old church. It was an emotional time when Ed Martin, one of the parish’s fundraising coordinators, heard the news. He expected the enormity to fully register when Fr. Ken Walsh announced the good news to the entire congregation at Sunday Mass. 

“A couple months ago, we didn’t know what would happen to (our church),” said Martin.

Saving the church came dramatically down to the wire. Martin said he was in a race against the clock in the hours before the 12 p.m. bid filing deadline on June 2 to attain the over $9,400 donated to the campaign via GoFundMe. He did not divulge the value of the exact submitted bid, but he thinks it “is fair and respectable to the (Mount Cashel) victims.”

“It was a brutal process. I wouldn’t want to wish it on any other diocese. If there is any other diocese where the diocese owns all the parishes, they should really change that because there are a lot of people who still don’t know what is happening to their parish,” he said.

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