Some Catholics are calling on the Saint John diocese to modernize its relationship with women, before spending millions to restore the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

"Fixing up the bricks and mortar while ignoring half your people, that is short-sighted," says historian Elizabeth McGahan, a proponent of letting women into the priesthood.

On Tuesday night of Holy Week, McGahan stood in silent protest, along with a dozen members of the New Brunswick Catholic Network for Women's Equality.

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Historian Elizabeth McGahan believes the Catholic church is ignoring half its population by refusing to talk about increased roles for women in the church, including becoming priests. (CBC)

As they gathered outside the front door, holding placards that read "Where are women priests?" and "God is an equal opportunity employer," female passersby waved with enthusiasm or gave the thumbs up.

All the while, one priest stood watchful, his face a mask of disapproval. "I know some people who are here. Obviously, I don't share their opinion," said Rev. Aaron Knox.

"Dialogue implies that there is going to be a change and the church has said there's not going to be women priests," he said.

'We're hurting'

When asked how the Cathedral's restoration campaign was progressing, Knox replied, "We're hurting."

He said the fundraising committee has been reaching out to wealthy donors but the hefty cheques have not materialized.

The Cathedral launched a $10 million restoration campaign in 2013 to help pay for upgrades to the building, which celebrated its 160th anniversary in 2015.

The replacement of the 24,000 square foot roof, at a cost of $3 million, is nearing completion.

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The Saint John Diocese has a $10M restoration campaign going on for repairs to the Cathedral. (CBC)

The CBC made multiple attempts between March 24 and April 21 to acquire an update from Lynn Forbes Gautier, Executive Director of the Cathedral Restoration Project, but the figures were never provided.

According to the Bishop's online message, the restoration will help the church meet the growing needs of the parishes.

"It should be regarded by all Catholics as their Church," wrote Robert Harris.

But Colleen Grattan-Gick says she doesn't feel welcome because of her gender.

"It's a symbol of exclusion," is how she described the Cathedral.

Grattan-Gick says she no longer attends mass. Instead, she goes to "house church" where services are conducted among friends and neighbours in private homes.

'We do have a crisis.'
- Elizabeth McGahan, historian

The Saint John diocese includes some 115,000 Catholics dispersed over eight counties in and around Saint John, Fredericton and Miramichi.

Members of the Equality Network say people are divided as to whether the Cathedral restoration should be a priority, when almost all local parishes struggle financially.

Some say the future of Catholicism lies out in the community, not inside the walls of any one building.

"The living church is not always within the walls of the church," said Mary Bardsley, who travelled from Fredericton to attend the protest. "And social justice issues are addressed well beyond the walls of the church. I see there's a place for both."

The network recently sponsored two New Brunswick screenings of the documentary Radical Grace.

The film was made after the Vatican's 2012 censure of the largest association of nuns in the United States, for deviating from doctrine and promoting "radical" feminist themes.

A local comparison would be Saint John's Sisters of Charity. Their mission is to answer the needs they see in their own community.

To that end, they have founded addiction counselling services in Saint John and a home for pregnant teens and teenage mothers.

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About a dozen people attended the protest in Saint John. (CBC)

The Sisters of Charity would not comment publicly on the Cathedral restoration.

However, they are conspicuously absent from the executive committee and the honorary patrons listed in the Cathedral's fundraising leadership.

Numbers dwindling

Elizabeth McGahan, who has researched religious communities in New Brunswick, says the Catholic congregations in the province are nearing extinction.

"I mean in any other organization, if you didn't have somebody in training and you had all the guys who are working, looking like [they are] 70-year-olds, you'd feel that you have a crisis." she says. "And we do have a crisis."

According to Rev. Bill Brennan, the diocese has no new priests in development.

Normally, such candidates would be identified and sponsored in theology school. But none of the ones in college are currently enlisted to come to New Brunswick.

"There's nobody in seminary formation," he said. Brennan says he supports putting women in leadership roles in the church, and that includes allowing women into the priesthood.