Bishop Fred Henry's resignation breathes hope into campaign to keep Lethbridge churches open

Some Roman Catholic parishioners in Lethbridge hope the resignation of Bishop Fred Henry may give fresh hope to their campaign to keep three churches open in the southern Alberta city.

Father Tumback says pending church closures a 'done deal,' not how bishop should be remembered

St. Patrick's Church in Lethbridge has stood empty since 2011. It's one of three churches in the southern Alberta city that are due to close but some parishioners are hoping that Bishop Fred Henry's resignation will help get the decision reversed. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Some Roman Catholic parishioners in Lethbridge hope the resignation of their bishop may give fresh hope to their campaign to keep three churches open in the southern Alberta city.

Roman Catholic Bishop Fred Henry's resignation as head of the Diocese of Calgary was announced Wednesday. The bishop was lauded for his many contributions to the community and the church, but also remembered as an outspoken man known for making controversial comments on social issues, including HPV vaccines and gender inclusion policies in Alberta schools.

However, some Catholics in Lethbridge are more focused on another aspect of his legacy: the future of three community churches, St. Patrick's Church, St. Basil's Church, and Our Lady of the Assumption Church.

Under Henry, the churches were merged to form one parish in 2006, called the All Saints Parish. In 2011, St. Patrick's Church was closed and masses and community activities at the building ceased.

The parish is fundraising to build a new building and when it opens, the other two churches still in use will also be shuttered.

Francis Noronha says he still attends Our Lady of the Assumption Church because he would never let a dispute distance him from his faith. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Some parishioners formed the Save Our Churches Association to fight the decision, appealing all the way up to the Vatican to overturn the decisions made by Henry.

The appeals were upended when the bishop made a decree in October saying the closure of St. Patrick's would be made permanent as of Jan. 1, 2017, when the church would be put on the market. 

Community division

The decision has created significant division in the community, said Francis Noronha, secretary of the Save Our Churches Association.

"I think with a different bishop there might have been more dialogue. We might have been able to avoid the division that has occurred in our community," said Noronha, who has attended Catholic churches in Lethbridge for more than 40 years. 

"He's very authoritarian in his approach to any kind of situation and it's his way or the highway.

"We are a very split community now with a lot of people hurting because of the possibility that three churches might be closed and sold."

Henry's resignation has given the Save Our Churches Association new hope and the association has restarted the appeal process, Noronha said.

He thinks all decisions made by the former bishop would be reviewed by the incoming bishop before irreversible actions are taken. 

'It's a done deal'

However, Father Kevin Tumback, residing priest at the All Saints Parish, said he doesn't think Bishop Henry's resignation will make a difference.

"Even when all three churches were open, they struggled with how to meet the needs of the people. So we're looking at building a new church. The land has been bought," said Tumback.

"It's a done deal." 

Father Kevin Tumback says he doubts there will be any change of course for the community churches under a new bishop, citing the new church being built will better meet the needs of the congregation. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Tumback said it's the prerogative of the new bishop, William McGrattan, to change course — but he's fairly certain that won't happen. 

"I don't anticipate any changes. I expect it's carry on and do as we have been doing," said Tumback.

That means continuing to fundraise for construction of a new church while finalizing the building plans.

Tumback confirmed the building has been put up for sale and there are a number of interested parties, although no official offers have been made. 

'Not going to let one person destroy my faith'

While the Save Our Churches Association criticized Henry's decision making, Tumback spoke in his defence saying he'd always had a positive experience working with him. 

"At the end of the day, all of the stuff lands on the bishop's desk and so he has to make the decisions," he said. "But the thing is, he has an open-door policy and he's always willing to listen to people."  

Noronha is concerned the drama of this conflict has moved people away from the faith that is at the heart of it all, and that some members might never return to the fold. 

"I'm not going to let one person destroy my faith," said Noronha. "This is the first time I've had to be in an adversarial position with my bishop and my priest. It's very uncomfortable. Very sad."