Holy Rosary Church in Portugal Cove-St. Philips, Nfld. Parishioners thought they had saved the church only to have it pulled out from under them. Photo from Facebook

Newfoundland parishioners feel ‘betrayed’ by archbishop

  • October 19, 2022

Some parishioners refused to attend the final Mass at Newfoundland’s Holy Rosary Church, angered by what they see as a “betrayal” over closure of their parish after being led to believe it could remain open.

Instead, the final Mass was celebrated Oct. 16, the final liturgical service in this parish’s 107-year history, and the last Eucharistic celebration in this rural seashore community of Portugal Cove-St. Philips that has boasted a Catholic Church presence for 189 years.

The anger from many parishioners is focused squarely on St. John’s Archbishop Peter Hundt, who celebrated the final Mass at Holy Rosary. Parishioner Ed Martin said he and others “feel betrayed” by archdiocesan leadership.

“I was talking to one of the little old ladies in our parish who has been going to Holy Rosary for decades and she said she feels so angry by how this entire process played out,” he said.

The process Martin alludes to is the ongoing restructuring of the archdiocese, a realignment that arose when Newfoundland’s Court of Appeals ruled in 2020 that the archdiocese was vicariously liable for the abuses committed at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s — operated by the Christian Brothers of Ireland — in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

Financial insolvency beset the archdiocese, which filed for bankruptcy in December 2021 when the court ordered it to cover the liability left the survivors when the Christian Brothers went bankrupt. The archdiocese was forced to sell a number of properties to cover the settlement.

A tender process was launched in March and parish groups around the archdiocese, including Holy Rosary, submitted bids to save their churches.

“The archbishop said to people in the archdiocese, not necessarily to our group, but I know he said to people that ‘I am not going to stand in the way of any group of parishioners trying to save their parish,’ ” said Martin. “So, we went with it. He did send a letter to the parish priest on May 18 stating that if we went ahead, there would be no guarantee of a priest being assigned.”

Martin said the letter did not deter the community. He said it reacted to the situation like many would if a doctor told them there was a treatment available that could potentially cure a terminally ill loved one, albeit with no guarantee of success.

Initially, Holy Rosary parishioners thought they that had saved their church. In mid-June, the firm overseeing the auction, Ernst & Young, informed parish leadership that its bid was successful. Weeks earlier, a deal had already been brokered with the Portugal Cove-St. Philips Chamber of Commerce to divide the parcel of land around the parish in two. The parish would keep the smaller portion, which contained the church building, and the town would take charge of the larger segment to develop a cultural centre.

Ernst & Young advised Holy Rosary to set up a corporation and to apply for charitable status. In July, Martin reached out to Hundt, seeking help in correctly drafting the articles of incorporation for a Roman Catholic Church and Hundt met Martin and the board of directors Aug. 23.

“We went into the meeting thinking it would be a discussion about what we must have in our articles of incorporation,” said Martin. “The archbishop asked me to start the proceedings. We gave him some of the background that he knew already, and then he basically cut me off and said, ‘well I’m not giving you a priest.’ ”

The people assembled for the meeting responding with a bemused “okay” when Hundt made his surprise declaration, said Martin. They replied that they were not seeking a seven-day-a-week arrangement and asked if he would provide a priest who could come for a single Sunday Mass. That request was denied too. Martin said Hundt cited a lack of priests in the archdiocese.

Hundt told The Ctholic Register that he understands and appreciates “the important emotional and spiritual ties that many parishioners have to their parish church,” but that circumstances make for some very hard decisions having to be made.

“The archdiocese has sought to consult and work collaboratively with the people of the archdiocese in discerning how best to meet our legal and financial obligations to the victims of abuse while continuing to provide for the practise of the faith of the Catholic people of the archdiocese,” Hundt wrote in an email. “Sadly, this has meant having to make hard choices regarding the closing of particular churches.”

Hundt went on to say that the archdiocese hopes and prays “for God’s consolation and comfort for the parishioners” of parishes affected by these closings.

“May God’s grace help them to continue in the practise of their faith in one of the neighbouring Catholic parishes,” he wrote.

While Martin acknowledges the difficulties Hundt and Church leaders are navigating with this restructuring, he said the process was carried out improperly.

“In our diocese, like a lot of others across Canada, the U.S. and Europe, we knew because of increasing numbers of people not going to Mass that some parishes in this diocese needed to be closed. I don’t argue that. But it should have been done in the proper way. They really should have decided which parishes they were going to keep open, and which ones they wanted to close, and then begin the process of selling off parishes.

“Instead they gave us a sense of false hope. We raised the money to save our church in six weeks, and we were able to pay with cash. We did a great job and then we had this bombshell dropped on us.”

Martin said he challenged Hundt in their meeting about his statement in May about potentially not giving Holy Rosary a priest by saying he “should have used direct language” instead of “nebulous language.” According to Martin, Hundt responded “that’s not nebulous,” to which Martin replied, “it is to me, as the flip side of no guarantee means there is a possibility.”

The lack of forthright communication from Hundt has also been difficult to grapple with, said Martin.

“I am not equating what is happening here with the abuse crisis that we had in the past, but this whole idea of doing everything behind closed doors in secret, and not being transparent, you think they would have learned,” he said.

Apart from the emotional dimension of this situation, Martin said the actions Hundt executed in closing parishes, including Holy Rosary, does not comply with procedure stipulated in the Code of Canon Law according to the experts he has consulted in recent weeks. He and “15-20 other parishioners” will take their case to the Vatican in the hope that Rome will overturn the archdiocese’s edict.

Notably, Hundt was awarded a license in canon law back in 1987.

The whole process left a distinctly bad taste in the mouths of many parishioners, with certain congregants refusing to attend the final Mass because of Hundt being the celebrant. For his part, Hundt, in his homily, told the congregants, “When you’ve helped to build something it’s hard to accept that it is time to let it go.”

“We have gathered here today for the final Mass at Holy Rosary Church because it has been a part of our lives and the faith practice of the archdiocese,” Hundt told the congregation. “Many of you have strong ties to this church. You, and those who have gone before you, have played a very key role in building and sustaining this parish community, its faith practice and its pastoral and charitable outreach.

“It’s hard to let those things go, and it’s right and good that it is hard to let go as that is the measure of how important and special this parish community has been.”

Holy Rosary parishioners will likely seek Holy Trinity in Torbay or one of the churches in St. John’s as their new parish — at least for now. Contributors to the save the parish bid will have their money refunded. The parish’s financial and sacramental records are being transferred to Holy Trinity.

The legal process with the Vatican is poised to unfold over the next few months. Meanwhile, the Portugal Cove-St. Philips Chamber of Commerce, which had original interest in purchasing the house of worship before striking the deal with the parish, will be in line to take ownership of the land for its cultural centre plans.

Martin and his associates sought an extension from Ernst & Young while this appeal plays out, but that request was denied.

Portugal Cove-St. Philips Chamber of Commerce declined to speak to media about this situation, but according to the Holy Rosary website “part of the church building will remain as a space for multi-denominational place of worship,” if the chamber ultimately takes ownership.

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