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Newfoundland Catholics win parish appeal, but future still uncertain

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A group of Canadian Catholics say the Vatican has overturned the suppression of their parish, after they rallied to purchase their parish church in a 2022 auction.

But members of Holy Rosary Parish, in Portugal Cove-St. Philips, Newfoundland are still uncertain about what will happen next, as they say the archbishop has declined a meeting to discuss the future of liturgy in the parish. 

In Newfoundland, Catholics appeal closure after winning church bid


Ed Martin, a Holy Rosary parishioner and procurator of the appeal against the parish suppression, told The Pillar that he had received a letter from the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Clergy last week, indicating that the dicastery had overturned Archbishop Peter Hundt’s decisions to both merge the parish and relegate the church to profane use.

Martin said he is happy about the decision, but cautiously so. 

“I asked for a meeting [with Archbishop Hundt] to discuss it, but he's not willing to meet at this point in time, so I don't know what his next move is,” Martin said.

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

Holy Rosary was one of 18 parish churches in the Archdiocese of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, placed up for sale in 2022. 

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.”

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.

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.

But when they met with the archbishop in August 2022, they were told the parish was being shut down.

The reasons reportedly 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 argued that with the parish land split in two, the parish was financially viable. There were fewer buildings to maintain and heat. And, they believed, the fact that they had just won an auction to buy the church building showed the parishioners’ commitment to their local church community.

But while the parishioners voiced these thoughts in a letter to the archbishop, Hundt announced that he was planning to close the parish. Hundt celebrated a “final Mass” there October 16, 2022.

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After that Mass, parishioners worked with a canon lawyer to appeal the decision to the Vatican.

The parishioners argued that proper canonical procedure was not followed in the de facto suppression of their parish. They said they had not received a formal decree of suppression, leaving them in a tough position. 

They also said Archbishop Hundt misled them, indicating that their parish could remain open if they successfully bought its church building during the archdiocesan bankruptcy auction.

Parishioners told The Pillar at the time that they were frustrated they were allowed to move forward with fundraising and bidding on the church building when it later seemed that the archbishop had not intended to let them keep their parish. 

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. They later found out that the archdiocese was planning to merge their community into Holy Trinity.

After sending their appeal to the Vatican in October 2022, Martin said he received notice of the decision last week. 

He said the dicastery had objected to the archbishop’s merger of the parish, and relegation of the church building to non-sacred use, and ruled that the archdiocese did not have a right to sell Holy Rosary Parish property, because the parish is a distinct juridic person.

Martin said news of the Vatican’s decision has started to percolate through the parish community, where support for the church had been nearly unanimous. The parish had about 50 regular Mass attendees when the church was last open, just a few weeks after Covid restrictions were lifted. Before Covid, Mass attendance was around 85 people.

Some people have been almost in tears at the news, he said.

A few parishioners had been so upset about the parish closure that they had stopped going to Mass when the church was shut down nearly 18 months ago.

One woman told Martin that her brother will return to Mass if the church re-opens.

“If that brings people back [and] we can get this church re-opened, that would be great,” Martin reflected. 

Still, the community’s excitement is tempered by the uncertainty of what will happen next.

Since Hundt has not responded to parishioners’ request for a meeting, it is not clear what the next steps will be - for example, whether the archbishop might try to appeal the dicastery’s decision to the Apostolic Signatura, a Vatican court of appeal.

Martin hopes the archdiocese will respond to his overtures soon. He said that with the other parish closures in the archdiocese, there are now enough priests to have one assigned solely to Holy Rosary.

Meanwhile, the morale at Holy Rosary - already impacted by the church’s closure and the lengthy appeal process - remains tenuous as the community continues to wait.

Martin said the appeal process has been intimidating and disheartening.

“I'm a regular Joe in the pew. I’m not a lawyer... I just thought this whole thing was unjust,” he said.

He added that he now has “a file that's probably about six inches thick of letters back and forth to the archdiocese, to the Vatican, you name it.”

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Updated 2/29/24 with clarification on Mass attendance numbers.

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