P.E.I. parishes on chopping block

  • November 9, 2007
{mosimage}In less than a year the church in Prince Edward Island could cut two-thirds of its parishes. Demographic shifts, an overstretched and aging priesthood and financial pressures are driving the diocese of Charlottetown to consider reducing the number of parishes, missions and chapels it is committed to maintaining from 59 to 17.

“Whether churches will close or not close is not the issue,” said Charlottetown vicar general Fr. John Lacey. “We’re already struggling with that. We have had one or two churches close already. One is in abeyance for the winter months. The fact that some churches are going to close is a fact of life. We know that.”

Amid widespread fear that historic rural churches are on the chopping block, the diocese is trying to rationally manage the restructuring of parish life, rather than let churches close haphazardly as priests retire or communities become too small and elderly to maintain the buildings, Lacey told The Catholic Register. Final decisions on new parishes and their boundaries are expected in May 2008, he said.

“It’s part of the larger question of the death of rural communities in Canada,” said Joe Velaidum, University of Prince Edward Island professor and director of the Centre for Christianity and Culture.

In the 1951 census there were 10,137 farms in P.E.I. By 2006 that was down to 1,700.

Rural towns and rural parishes are struggling to survive as younger people with families move to urban areas. The proposal from the Charlottetown diocese will intensify an already simmering political battle between rural and urban P.E.I., said Velaidum.

“It’s going to be seriously heated,” he said. “This issue is going to get tied up in the political questions — the question of rural versus the city, which is a big question in Prince Edward Island.”

“It’s anticipated that this will not be an easy process,” conceded Lacey. “There will be difficult choices to be made.”

So far the Diocesan Pastoral Initiatives Council, a committee of lay people and clergy set up by Charlottetown Bishop Vernon Fougere in 1997, has defined the borders of 17 proposed parishes in the five deaneries of the island. They have not designated which church buildings will remain open, or which ones will close. It is also possible that the borders of the 17 parishes may change following November meetings in each of the five deaneries.

Following the deanery meetings, there will be open meetings in each of the 17 proposed parishes. The first deanery meeting was held in Charlottetown Nov. 5 and attracted about 300 people.

“This is a consultative process. We need to be open, because some of the proposed groupings may not fly at the local level,” Lacey said.

The diocese also has to face the fact 15, or 47 per cent, of its 32 priests are over the age of 60. Thirty years ago the same number of parishes was served by 50 much younger priests. In 2001 the diocese tried clustering parishes, but now more radical solutions are necessary, said Lacey.

“It is driven by a shortage of priests to some extent,” said Lacey.

Prince Edward Island’s profusion of village churches represents something of an historical anomaly.  The island’s 62,071 Catholics spread over 59 parishes, missions and chapels comes to 1,052 Catholics per church. That’s less than half the 2,410 Catholics per parish across Canada.

“We built our churches in the horse and buggy days so the local community had a church,” said Lacey.

What happens to redundant church buildings, many of them designated historic sites, will be a question parishioners tackle after they decide on borders for the new parishes, said Lacey.

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