Nfld. & Labrador

Basilica bidders hope to preserve culture, faith amid church bankruptcy

Three Catholic groups are teaming up to possibly purchase the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, St. Bonaventure's College and the St. Bon's Forum in St. John's.

Coalition benefits churchgoers and abuse survivors, says former mayor

The Basilica of St. John the Baptist, a National Historic Site, is one of many Catholic church properties up for sale. The deadline for bids is June 2. (Heather Barrett/CBC)

Three Catholic groups in St. John's with a lot to lose are teaming up to keep the church's most prized possession from potentially falling into the hands of developers as the archdiocese sells off properties to compensate Mount Cashel abuse victims.

The coalition of the Basilica Heritage Foundation, St. Bonaventure's College and the St. Bon's Forum was reported by CBC on Wednesday. The group has since confirmed its plans to place a joint bid for the Basilica of St. John the Baptist and its adjoining properties in a letter posted to the school's website.

The signatories say it's a move to "maintain and protect a vital piece of our history, our culture and our city." Nobody from the group was made available to speak to the media Thursday.

The basilica — one of the oldest and largest churches in the country — promises to play a key role in bankruptcy proceedings that have rocked the church in a city where Catholic roots run deep.

Mount Cashel, operated by the Christian Brothers, closed in 1990. (CBC)

The Archdiocese of St. John's landed in financial crisis after it was found liable for physical and sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel Orphanage from the 1940s to the 1960s. The total amount owed to survivors has yet to be determined, but lawyers on the case say more victims continue to come forward.

As a result, many significant church properties were put up for auction. That includes the basilica, which was consecrated in 1855, and adjoining properties such as St. Bonaventure's College and Forum. With its towers visible from many parts of the city, the cathedral has been the biggest symbol of the Catholic church's presence in St. John's for 167 years.

"These properties, in the heart of our city, may attract outside buyers with commercial intentions, endangering the very existence of an integral piece of our community and history," reads the letter from the bidding group.

"This is a big part of why we are dedicating significant efforts to safeguard this complex, a National Historic Site of Canada, through a collaborative and unified approach."

Former St. John's mayor Dennis O'Keefe is part of group raising money to possibly bid on Corpus Christi, another Catholic church in the city. (Ted Dilon/CBC)

The Basilica Heritage Foundation says a successful bid would allow the basilica to continue operating as a place of worship. St. Bonaventure's College — located just behind the basilica — says the move would allow the school to continue operating, and the St. Bon's Forum would also be able to keep its status quo as a hockey rink.

"We move forward with this endeavour inspired by hope, faith and the goal of doing what's right for our community and home province," the letter said.

All bids are due on June 2. The letter did not get into specifics on where the funding will come from, or what the anticipated amount will be.

Bid could be new chapter, says former mayor

Dennis O'Keefe says any bid could involve a large amount of money.

The former mayor of St. John's — and a longtime Catholic school teacher — is part of a group raising money to possibly bid on Corpus Christi, another Catholic church in the city. While he isn't involved in the efforts to save the basilica, he believes it will require a huge investment.

The upfront costs could pale in comparison to the long-term operational costs, and while that will undoubtedly make it difficult to keep the church afloat, O'Keefe said the sale could finally begin to heal deep wounds still very much present from Mount Cashel, and begin a new chapter for the parish.

"This is one way to [compensate the survivors] and at the same time build the Catholic faith here in St. John's," he said.

O'Keefe says he watched over the years as faith changed in the city, largely due to Mount Cashel and other revelations of clergy abuse. The way people worshipped changed, too, O'Keefe said, with more people choosing to do it from home. Despite ever-dwindling attendance, O'Keefe said maintaining the basilica is important for many reasons.

"The Basilica of St. John the Baptist has played a major role in not only the Catholic life in St. John's, but also culturally and charitably; serving the homeless, serving the poor," O'Keefe said. "There's a lot of history, a lot of stories, and hopefully through this option, they can be preserved."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ryan Cooke is a multiplatform journalist with CBC News in St. John's. His work often takes a deeper look at social issues and the human impact of public policy. Originally from rural Newfoundland, he attended the University of Prince Edward Island and worked for newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada before joining CBC in 2016. He can be reached at

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