9 Catholic churches in Saint John diocese to shut doors

Nine Roman Catholic churches in the Saint John Diocese will close by September, the church told parishioners on Sunday.

31 priests will tend to the remaining 70 churches, diocese will form 27 parishes out of existing 58

Bishop Robert Harris says he recognizes the decisions won’t satisfy everyone. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Declaring itself "no longer in a positive financial situation," the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint John announced plans today to close several of its church buildings and merge parishes in an effort to contain costs and revitalize flagging church attendance.

In total, nine sites of worship will close by September: one church in the Fredericton region, three in the Miramichi region and five in the Saint John region.

"I don't take any pleasure in closing churches," Bishop Robert Harris told CBC News. "We did what we had to do." 

The churches that will be closed in the Saint John region are:

  • Holy Trinity Church.
  • St. Peter's Catholic Church.
  • Saint John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church.
  • St. Augustine Catholic Church in Grand Bay-Westfield.
  • Holy Rosary Catholic Church in St. Stephen.

One church will close in Fredericton:

  • Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Parish Church.

Three small mission churches in the Miramichi region will also close. They include:

  • Church of the Holy Family in Barryville.
  • ​Church of All Saints in Millbank.
  • Our Lady of Good Counsel in Millerton.

Harris said the diocese, which now counts 79 churches over 58 parishes, will reorganize itself into just 27 parishes by September 2019. Harris said the diocese that manages the Catholic churches in the province's south will also combine parishes, forming 27 new ones out of the existing 58 by September 2019.

According to Bishop Harris, 27 new parishes will be made out of the existing 58 in the province's south by September 2019. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

In total, 31 priests will tend to the remaining 70 churches. Whatever debts a parish has will need to be dealt with by the parish itself, Harris said. 

"They're going to have to look at employees and see how much money they need," he said.

"It's an effort to make sure we've got enough finances to make it happen, enough finances to make sure that in this particular canonical parish the two or three buildings that are being kept, they can pay for them. The minute they can't do that, then they will have to look at, well, we might have to downsize."

While acknowledging these decisions won't satisfy everyone, Harris said earlier proposals to close 35 per cent of the churches in the diocese, about 27 buildings, "shocked people".

"I looked at all that and some of the proposals that were being made with good intention and I just said, no I can't endorse that, I can't promote that."

More closures possible 

In a letter from the bishop read to parishioners at services on Sunday, Harris said "the focus of this process is on the merger of communities into new parishes rather than the closure of churches." 

Parishioners at 9 churches learned Sunday their places of worship will be closed in the fall 0:48

But for those hit hardest by the news, more heartbreak may be on the way.

Each of the 27 consolidated parishes will have to decide how many churches it needs and how many buildings it can afford.

"They're not there forever," Harris said. "They're there while we try to revitalize the diocese and while we try to grow our church."

As a result, more church closures may be inevitable. 

"The reality is going to be every newly merged canoncial parish is going to have a responsibility to say, as we move forward, how many sites do we need for worship, how many churches do we need for our new territory. That'll be their call," he said. 

'I haven't passed the buck'

Parishes will still need to ask his office permission to close churches, but Harris recognizes some might see him as passing responsibility for the tough decisions onto churchgoers.

"Anyone [that] thinks I've passed the buck, that's what they're going to think. I haven't passed the buck because I'm not a dictator. The laity have to take ownership. We're in it together."

He said an ongoing dialogue between those in the pews and the bishop's office will continue.

"It's not just, 'we're doing this and you're on your own.' No. We're doing this and we will continue to monitor with them what's going on," he said. 

He said particular thought went into ensuring that First Nations and French communities were left alone.

"They needed to continue to be and have a place to be," he said, but warned these worshippers will also have to find a way to pay for their churches.

Research conducted

Many churchgoers in the diocese won't be shocked by the plan. Harris, his priests and members of the Catholic lay community have been wrestling for a decade with the dilemma of declining attendance, falling revenues and too few priests.

In 2016 the diocese sought help from the Catholic Leadership Institute — a U.S.-based organization that has assisted many American and Canadian dioceses with similar population problems. They surveyed 55 per cent of attendees in the Saint John Diocese, about 6,600 people.

In other consultations, Harris said 3,500 people attended meetings held in affected areas. A further 1,600 people submitted feedback electronically or by mail.

It was also concluded that priests were open to plans to realign the diocese.

'They will be cared for'

Harris said he kept hearing the same thing repeatedly.

"People kept saying, it's your call bishop. So I've called it," he said. 

While some might bemoan the fate of their parishes or churches, Harris believes others will be relieved at having the burden of trying to run churches with crumbling infrastructure off their shoulders. He said he's trying to realign the diocese, without forgetting those he leads.

"I know that, predominantly, we have a lot of faithful, dedicated elderly people that have been coming to church all their lives. And they're still coming to church," he said. "I want them to know they will be cared for."