Nearly 20 parish churches on the eastern edge of North America face the prospect of closure, as the properties have gone up for sale in bankruptcy proceedings for the Archdiocese of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.
The parish church properties - at 18 of the 34 parishes in the archdiocese - were included in a March notice of sale, part of an effort to resolve an archdiocesan bankruptcy filing and a court order to compensate victims of sexual abuse at a closed Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland.
The Newfoundland archdiocese was in 2021 found liable for a religious community which operated Mount Cashel, a notoriously abusive orphanage in the archdiocese that closed in 1990. After it became responsible to compensate more 100 men sexually abused at the orphanage in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2021 — compensation claims were expected to exceed $50 million CAD.
In the Church’s canon law, parishes are regarded as separate legal entities from the archdiocese which governs them, and their property - including the parish church - is regarded as distinct from archdiocesan assets. But parish properties in Newfoundland are civilly owned by the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s, and thus eligible for liquidation in the archdiocesan bankruptcy.
The archdiocesan cathedral complex - which includes the 1855 Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist and the archdiocesan administrative offices - are among the church properties already listed for sale, most of which are in close proximity to the city of St. John’s.
Additional parish properties in the Newfoundland archdiocese are expected to be listed for sale in the weeks to come.
Parishioners at Holy Rosary Parish in the village of Portugal Cove-St. Philips say they want to keep their parish church open as a sacred space. But a group of business leaders in their small seaside community aims to purchase and redevelop the property as a community space, with a focus on “heritage,” “arts and culture,” and “health, wellness, and mindfulness.”
Local Catholic Ed Martin told The Pillar that he and other parishioners are raising money so they can make a bid on the parish property — at the very least on the parish church itself, even if the parish hall and other parts of the property are sold to others.
Martin said he initially expected the group aiming to redevelop the property would continue to allow Mass to be offered there.
But at a parish meeting last week, “it became very apparent that they have no plan to allow us to continue … they’re talking about taking pews out, and basically making it into a concert hall.”
To bid on the property, “we’ve set up a GoFundMe campaign, and we’ve also gone to parishioners to make pledges,” Martin told The Pillar.
“The whole thing is sealed bids, so we have no idea what we’re up against. But we’re going to try to do our best, and we don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”
Some parish churches for sale in the archdiocese are home to large communities, which are expected to be able to purchase their buildings.
Holy Rosary is not that kind of parish — Martin acknowledged that in his small village, only “about 50 people” attend Mass regularly at Holy Rosary. But he said that because other parishes in the area have recently closed, and with some Catholics moving to the area, the parish can be viable in the wake of the pandemic.
“There’s two churches left for the whole of Conception Bay, and that’s a population of nearly 60,000 people. So that’s one of the reasons that gives us a little bit of hope that we could make a run of it, because we can potentially pull people in from a little farther away.”
The closing of churches, he said, comes at a difficult time for Catholicism in eastern Canada.
“Unfortunately, like many places in the Western world, Mass attendance has declined — I don’t know what percentage of people who claim they’re Catholic attend Mass, but it’s not too high. And we do have too many churches here … On the other hand, I’m in my 50s, and my children are a bit older, but there is a group coming behind me, in their 30s, forming families right now, and they’re very solid in their faith. And that, to some degree gives me hope, that there won’t be a lot of people, but the people who will remain in the Church … they’re going to bring the future.”
“The other hope we have is that we’re seeing more immigration here. When I came [to Newfoundland] 25 years ago, you didn’t see any people of color — very, very rarely. And now we are welcoming people from Africa and the Philippines, and they’re coming to our churches as well, and there’s some hope there too.”
But without Holy Rosary and other parish churches, Martin said, it will be hard to be Catholic in his part of Newfoundland.
“I think it’s gonna be difficult for communities where I am if our church disappears, and other parish churches disappear,” he told The Pillar.
The archdiocese of St. John’s has not announced that it will suppress the parishes whose buildings are for sale — only that the church buildings themselves could be closed. But it is not clear where parish communities would worship without church buildings.
Martin said that archdiocesan administrators have been supportive of local efforts to hang onto parish churches.
“They're supportive. The archbishop has said that any parish that wants to can make a bid on their property, and is welcome to. The archbishop — poor guy — he only came here in 2019… and he’s been put in a hard position.”
Still, “there could be more communication. Of course, I do understand that there may be legal constraints as to what they can actually say. So it just seems that there’s some degree of secrecy, which is probably more the lawyers than our archbishop,” Martin added.
At least one St. John’s parish, St. Kevin’s, will not go up for sale. The parish raised $5.5 million in a “Chase the Ace” lottery fundraiser in 2017, which will allow it to purchase its church and parish hall - valued at nearly $1 million - from the archdiocese.
In 1911, the Holy See urged American bishops to separately incorporate each parish in a diocese; and to avoid any legal structure in which a single entity held title to the property of all diocesan parishes. While some bishops responded, others in the U.S. have maintained “corporation sole” models, in which all parish real estate is civilly owned by a single legal entity - potentially putting parishes at risk for diocesan liabilities.
While canon law does not allow closed churches to be sold for “sordid use” and requires an archdiocesan college of consultors and finance council to approve sales of church buildings, it is not clear how canonical requirements will be included in the sale process of churches listed for sale. The bankruptcy documents do not explicitly indicate a provision for canonical processes in the course of sales.
For its part, the archdiocese is suing its insurance carrier, which has refused to indemnify or defend the archdiocese. And archdiocesan attorneys are also working to see their bankruptcy settlement restructured, to allow for a more orderly process of selling properties. A ruling is expected in late May.
It is not clear whether parish communities in St. John’s will also file suit in an effort to protect their parish properties from archdiocesan fiscal liabilities.
The Mount Cashel Orphanage story in Newfoundland is one of the most egregious, notorious, and horrific stories of clerical sexual abuse in the history of Canada.
The orphanage opened in Newfoundland in 1898 and operated for nearly a century. It was operated by members of the Irish Christian Brothers religious order. In the late 1980s and 1990s, it emerged that hundreds of orphanage residents had been sexually abused over decades at the orphanage.
In the decades that followed, the Christian Brothers and the Newfoundland government paid more than $27 million to victims of sexual abuse at the orphanage. The Christian Brothers in Canada eventually went bankrupt.
But one legal issue was not resolved until January 2021. Victim-survivors of abuse at the orphanage filed suit claiming that the Archdiocese of St. John’s was responsible for the abuse at the orphanage — that the archdiocese had created the environment in which abuse occurred by inviting the religious order to run the orphanage, and that it had been negligent in exercising supervision over the Christian Brothers.
The archdiocese claimed it was never responsible for the operations of the orphanage, and was not empowered to be involved in the internal operations of the Christian Brothers.
In July 2020, the provincial Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador found that the archdiocese did engage in some supervision over orphanage activities— but not enough.
The archdiocese assumed supervisory authority by inviting the Christian Brothers to run the orphanage, representing itself to the government as an operator of the orphanage, by approving its fundraising initiatives, by supplying priests for spiritual care, and by involving itself in admissions policies, the court said.
The court concluded that because the archdiocese exercised some kinds of oversight over the orphanage, it could not claim to have no responsibility with regard to abuse claims.
“The Archdiocese vested the Brothers with power over the appellants within a structure requiring obedience to and respect for the Brothers. This set-up was ripe for the Brothers to exercise their unchecked power and authority over the appellants,” the judges wrote.
“In our view, the total relationship between the Brothers at Mount Cashel and the Archdiocese shows that the Brothers were working on the account of the Archdiocese’s social and religious mandate. Their relationship was sufficiently close, and the connection between the Brothers’ assigned tasks and their wrongdoing was sufficiently close, to justify the imposition of vicarious liability on the Archdiocese,” the court concluded.
If it acted in charge when it was convenient, the judges said, the archdiocese had to be in charge when it proved inconvenient as well.
In January 2021, Canada’s Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the archdiocese against the Newfoundland decision, essentially affirming the decision of the lower court, and settling archdiocesan responsibility to compensate abuse victims.
For his part, Martin said he absolutely believes victims should be compensated - including victims of abuse at his own parish, where clerical sexual abuse first came to light in the 1980s.
“We have a very unfortunate history of abuse here…and I do believe that these victims were hurt badly and I understand the justice that they need to be compensated.”
Martin said victims of abuse are carrying the cross of their abuse. He said parishioners, “not the hierarchy,” are now asked to pay that cost.
“The victims need to be compensated, I see the justice of that,” he said. “It’s hard when the little church down the road that you love is thrown into the mix.”
“So we need to try to buy back our parish. And we’re gonna try to get there. We’re trying to keep it going.”
The deadline for bids on parish property is June 2.