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In Newfoundland, Catholics appeal closure after winning church bid

In Newfoundland, Catholics appeal closure after winning church bid

When a group of Newfoundland Catholics found out this year that their parish church was up for sale in an archdiocesan bankruptcy auction, they sprang into action. They held meetings, made a plan, raised money, and bid - successfully - on the church.

With some community spirit, and God’s help, they saved their parish. Or so they thought.

Soon after they had a deal to buy their little church, the parishioners at Holy Rosary Parish, in Portugal Cove-St. Philips, Newfoundland, learned their bishop had a different plan. Building or no building, the parish was going to be shut down.

So a group of Holy Rosary parishioners submitted a letter to Archbishop Peter Hundt this week, appealing the archbishop’s suppression of their parish. They say they’ll take the appeal to the Vatican if they have to.

The parishioners say that proper canonical procedure was not followed in the de facto suppression of their parish. They also say Hundt misled them, giving them the impression that their parish could remain open if they successfully bought their church building during the archdiocesan bankruptcy auction.

Ed Martin, a Holy Rosary parishioner and procurator of the appeal, told The Pillar that the parish has not received a formal notification of suppression, but received a letter from the archbishop in September confirming that the parish would be closing.

“The fact is that we presently have too many churches to be maintained by too few parishioners and some have [sic] these churches need to be closed. Unfortunately, Holy Rosary Church in Portugal Cove is one of those churches,” the Sept. 7 letter said.

The letter explained that plans were being made to transfer sacramental records and sacramental prep programs to another parish — a typical detail of a parish suppression.

An announcement was made last Sunday that the final Mass at the parish would be October 16.

The announcement came after Holy Rosary parishioners raised funds to purchase their parish church, which was one of 18 parish churches in the Archdiocese of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, placed up for sale earlier this year.

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The sale was 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.

Some members of the parish wanted to keep the church open as a sacred space. But a group of business leaders in their small seaside community wanted to purchase and redevelop the property - including the church building - as a community space, with a focus on “heritage,” “arts and culture,” and “health, wellness, and mindfulness.”

Ultimately, the two groups reached an agreement to divide the parcel of land in two. The larger parcel, including the buildings housing the rectory and parish hall, could be used as a cultural center, while the parishioners bid on the smaller portion, which included the church building and about an acre of surrounding land.

With the land split in two, the parishioners were able to set up a GoFundMe campaign in an effort to save the church building. The campaign attracted thousands of donations, some from as far away as California.

The parishioners raised enough money to successfully purchase their church building. The amount of the purchase has not been disclosed.

Martin told The Pillar that splitting up the property was a blessing, as it was unlikely the parishioners would have been able to raise the money to both buy and maintain the full property.

There are only about 50 people who regularly attend Mass at Holy Rosary, he said, but there are few other Catholic churches in the area for people to attend.

After parishioners won the building auction, they approached the archdiocese to ask about guidelines for drafting articles of incorporation and other legal documents, Martin said. The parishioners were told the archbishop wanted to meet with them. The meeting took place in late August.

At that meeting, the archbishop told the parishioners that he was shutting down Holy Rosary parish, Martin said.

“We went into this meeting thinking we were going to talk to the archbishop about our [parish’s] articles of incorporation,” he said. “We started off the meeting and then he basically cut it short and said, ‘Well, I'm not giving you a priest’.”

The reasons given: there were too few priests in the archdiocese, there was general concern about financial viability of parishes in the diocese, and a general decreasing and aging in parish populations.

The parishioners were shocked, Martin said. They had just won an auction to buy the church. And with the parish land split in two, they believed the parish to be financially viable.

“It wasn't [viable] prior to this whole process, but as a result of the process with this business group buying the majority of the property, we became viable financially,” he said.

“Our financial picture improved greatly, because we weren't covering the cost for a rectory where there was no priest in it and a parish hall. This is Canada, so you have to pay a lot of heating bills and all that sort of stuff. So, that put us in a much better situation… There were a lot of costs involved in maintaining those other pieces of the property.”

The conversation with the bishop took place August 23, Martin said. Parishioners subsequently collected their thoughts and wrote a letter to the archbishop the following week. He responded in the Sept. 7 letter, reiterating his intention of closing the parish. He also noted that the Chamber of Commerce may still be willing to buy the church building.

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But because they did not receive a formal decree suppressing the parish, Martin said, parishioners were left in a tough position - although their bid to buy the building was successful, they have not yet closed on the purchase. And they were not sure what was going to happen.

“It does make it a bit difficult. I don't think the will is there to purchase the church and just make it into a building where people might be able to go and pray, because I don't think we'd be able to afford to. We would need that weekly offertory to really maintain it.”

Parishioners were consulting with a canon lawyer about a possible appeal when they heard from the archbishop on Oct. 2 that the last Mass at the church would be two weeks later.

A group then decided to move forward with an appeal. If the archbishop does not respond favorably, the appeal will go to the Vatican.

Martin said the desire to preserve the parish is widespread among parishioners, although not everyone supports the appeal.

“I think there's still kind of an attitude of, you know, ‘would it be a sin to go against the bishop?’” he said.

But there is near unanimous sentiment that things never should have gotten to this point, he added.

“When we had gone through the whole effort of following the process, making our bid, winning the bid. And then for this to happen. I think we've had pretty close to 100% of the people saying that should have never happened, and we should have been allowed to continue on.”

Jerome Fennelly has been a parishioner at Holy Rosary since 1962.

“I received my First Communion there. I was confirmed there. Three quarters of my family were christened there - I'm the oldest of 10 kids. My mother and father were buried out of that church. It’s a big connection,” he told The Pillar.

“It just feels like we weren’t given a chance…If we had a priest committed to that parish, I just feel that we could bounce back with a bit of hard work.”

Martin said that a neighboring church, Holy Trinity in Torbay, was also put up for sale, and the archdiocese helped the parish purchase the church.

“And we were doing it all on our own,” he said. “And all of a sudden they're saying that we're going to be suppressed, or merged, or whatever you want to call it into this Holy Trinity Torbay in the neighboring community. So that leaves a further bad taste in our mouths.”

Martin said it gave the impression that the archdiocese had a plan all along to close certain churches and keep others open. But that plan was not conveyed in a clear manner, he said, and it has left Holy Rosary parishioners feeling hurt and discouraged.

“I think we surprised them [by] actually successfully buying our church, and we upset their plans.”

“It's really been disheartening,” Martin continued. “A lot of parishes thought they were given hope. Basically our understanding - and what the archbishop had said - was that ‘I'm not going to stand in the way of any group of parishioners buying their church.’ I guess they just didn't really think that anybody would be successful.”

Fennelly agreed. He said many parishioners are frustrated that they were allowed to move forward with fundraising and bidding on the church building when “looking back in hindsight now, you could see that Holy Rosary did not fit into their master plan.”

“If [the archbishop] wasn't going to commit a priest to our parish, I think he should have just told us that straight out in the beginning,” Fennelly said.

He said many parishioners will not attend the final Mass at the parish, because they’ve heard the archbishop will be celebrating it.

The Archdiocese of St. John’s did not respond to requests from The Pillar for comment.

For now, Martin said, parishioners are discouraged.

“Our parish, our church is perhaps the most beautiful church in the diocese. It was built by fishermen in 1915. It's beautiful. And the churches that they're keeping open are glorified gymnasiums. So it's really unfortunate.”

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