Holy Rosary Church in Portugal Cove-St. Philips, NL. Photo from Facebook

Vatican dicastery overturns St. John’s church closure

  • March 5, 2024

The Catholics of Portugal Cove-St. Philips, NL, who felt “betrayed” by the Archdiocese of St. John’s closing of Holy Rosary Church in October 2022 have attained a “moral victory” and a potential pathway to reopening their beloved church. 

Ed Martin, procurator of an appeal filed against the Archdiocese after their parish closed despite the community rallying to save it, opened a letter Feb. 21 revealing the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Clergy had overturned Archbishop Peter Hundt’s decision to close Holy Rosary and relegate it to profane use.

“Thankfully, someone at the Vatican decided to take a look,” said Martin. “Once they saw (our case), they realized proper canonical procedure wasn’t followed. As I’ve learned, there is a very specific process to close a parish. They clearly stated it was not followed. The other thing they do say (in the letter) is the archdiocese doesn’t have the right, in the words of the Vatican, ‘to usurp the finances of Holy Rosary Parish to take care of their financial problems.’ ”

Martin said his “heart started racing” when he saw the envelope addressed to him from the nuncio.

“I knew that it was something important,” said Martin. “I started trying to read it, and it was legalistic. So, what you do when you have a 10- or 12-page document is go right to the last page. I read it and thought, ‘this sounds like we’ve won.’ I called the canon lawyer and read her the last paragraph. She gave a little bit of a pause, then said, ‘you’ve won.’ ”

Martin has sought a meeting with Hundt to discuss the next steps. In a statement to The Catholic Register, Hundt declined to shed light on his next move. He wrote, “as this decree has only recently been received, it will need to be reviewed and analyzed with legal counsel before any further comment can be provided.”

Holy Rosary was among the dozens of properties on the selling block after the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation filed for bankruptcy in December 2021. The properties were sold to pay victims of physical and sexual abuse at the infamous Mount Cashel Orphanage in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Earlier that year, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Court of Appeal of Newfoundland and Labrador’s decision to declare the Archdiocese vicariously liable for the atrocities perpetrated at the institution operated by the Christian Brothers of Ireland. In 2011, the Irish Christian Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States.

Under the supervision of court-appointed monitor Ernst & Young, a tender process commenced in March 2022. Many congregations soon launched campaigns to save their houses of worship. Stakeholders throughout the Archdiocese heard Hundt say at the outset that he would not interfere with parishioners trying to save their church. However, on May 18 that year, Hundt emailed Holy Rosary to state that even if the community went forward with its fundraising, there would be no guarantee he would assign a priest to Portugal Cove-St. Philips.

Undeterred, parishioners kept their crusade in motion and accrued the capital for a competitive bid within six weeks. They made this happen by brokering a deal with the Portugal Cove-St. Philips Chamber of Commerce: They would divide the parcel of land around the parish in half. The smaller portion containing the then 107-year-old church would go to Holy Rosary, and the business leaders would develop the larger segment into a cultural centre. 

In mid-June, Ernst & Young informed the parish that its bid was successful. Holy Rosary was then encouraged to establish a corporation and apply for charitable status.

Seeking help to draft the articles of incorporation for a Roman Catholic Church, Martin and other members of the Holy Rosary team sought a meeting with Hundt. During the sit-down on Aug. 23, the Archbishop informed the group he would not provide them with a priest. Ultimately, Holy Rosary was merged with Holy Trinity Parish in Torbay, which is 20 minutes away. 

Many parishioners refused to attend the final Mass at Holy Rosary, presided over by Hundt. 

Martin and other parishioners were determined not to take this closure lying down. With the support of a canon lawyer, who wishes to remain anonymous, Martin went back and forth with the Vatican throughout 2023. The dicastery officially overruled Hundt this past January. The verdict then had to be approved by the nuncio. 

Martin said the Catholics who live in Portugal Cove-St. Philips (80 regularly attended Mass before the pandemic, 50 during), a rural seashore town with over 8,000 residents, are “very surprised” by this turn of events. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of people had given up hope,” said Martin. “It took a long time, 16 months. One guy I spoke to was in tears. This guy would drive down to the church just to sit in the parking lot to look at it. That is how attached he was to (Holy Rosary). Other people are still angry. Some are overjoyed. There is a real mix of emotions.

“There are two levels to this (ruling),” continued Martin. “First of all, the Vatican has vindicated what we felt. Whatever happens from here, there is kind of a moral victory, shall we say. But really what we want to see is the parish reopening. I am cautiously optimistic. The Vatican is direct and clear in what they’re saying.”

Hundt may challenge the ruling, or he could choose to abide by the Dicastery for the Clergy’s decision and assign a priest to Holy Rosary Church. Martin said Portugal Cove-St. Philips would be content with one Mass every Sunday. 

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