Nfld. & Labrador

It's been called 'ground zero' of N.L.'s clerical abuse. Now this landmark church is for sale

A new and influential committee has been formed in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's with the goal of purchasing the repurposing the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, but not everyone agrees, and a dark chapter in Newfoundland and Labrador's history hangs over the whole process.

New committee wants to purchase Holy Rosary parish, but plan has its critics

Like all properties owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's, Holy Rosary parish in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's is being sold to pay compensation to victims of abuse at the former Mount Cashel orphanage. The church has been a place of worship for more than a century but is also closely linked to disgraced priest James Hickey, who was convicted of abusing young boys over a 17-year period in the 1970s and '80s. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

An influential committee has been formed in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's with the goal of purchasing Holy Rosary Catholic Church, but not everyone agrees, and a dark chapter in Newfoundland and Labrador's history hangs over the whole process.

A coalition of community groups have thrown their support behind a new arts, wellness and heritage committee in order to prepare a bid on the landmark parish property overlooking Portugal Cove and repurpose the site into a community centre.

The committee has launched a fundraising campaign, wants the town council to designate the church a heritage property, and will host a meeting Thursday evening in a bid to rally public support.

The committee has also asked the town council to write a cheque for up to $12,000 to pay for an appraisal and structural assessment of the church property, with council expected to vote in favour of that request at next Tuesday's meeting.

Michael Murray, a well-known business leader in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, is chairing a new committee preparing a bid to purchase the Holy Rosary Catholic Church and other parish property in the Conception Bay community. The committee proposes to repurpose the church as a heritage, cultural and arts centre. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"We're hoping we'll find some people, philanthropists, others who would want to contribute because they think the building being repurposed to this better purpose might be a way of healing and making things better here in Portugal Cove-St Philip's," said committe chair Michael Murray, a well-known business leader.

A jailed priest

But the plan is stirring up memories of a painful chapter in the community's history because of the parish's connection to an abuse scandal by priests and Christian Brothers that rocked the Catholic church a generation ago and continues to reverberate as the Archdiocese of St. John's sells off properties such as Holy Rosary to pay millions in abuse claims.

Gavin Will, a town councillor in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, opposes efforts to have the town designate the church as a heritage place because it might restrict efforts to extract maximum value from the property, and because of its links to the abuse scandal. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

James Hickey, priest at Holy Rosary for much of the 1980s, was sent to jail after pleading guilty to charges of molesting young boys in several parishes over a 17-year period.

"It's true this church has had a long and proud history, but we simply cannot get away from the fact that this was ground zero for the sexual abuse scandal that erupted in the mid-1980s," said Gavin Will, a member of the seven-seat town council in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's.

Will admits he's the lone dissenting voice on council but he is opposed to approving municipal heritage status for the church, because such a designation comes with strict limitations on what alterations can be made to the site.

"This will limit the attractiveness of the property to potential buyers and negatively affect the amount of money the victims could receive," said Will.

He's also opposed to using tax dollars to help the committee, since others may also come forward hoping to buy the property before the June 2 deadline for bids.

"Are we going to say no to them, if we say yes to this to this group? We have to treat everybody equally. And I don't think that is the place for council to become involved," he said.

Parishioner Michelle Martin is pictured with her 15-year-old son John after praying before the Stations of the Cross on Tuesday. Martin is opposed to any plan that would see the 107-year-old church repurposed for another use. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The Catholic Church has had a presence on the site since the 1830s, and the current church was opened in 1915, built by locals before the days of power tools and modern construction techniques.

The parish is still active, but like most churches, its congregation has shrunk dramatically over the years, with the pandemic also keeping many of the faithful away.

And now the church is one of many at the centre of an unprecedented insolvency process as the archdiocese sells off properties throughout eastern Newfoundland. 

The courts have ruled that the archdiocese is vicariously liable for the abuse suffered by young boys who attended Mount Cashel orphanage in the '40s, '50s and '60s, and is now going through a court-monitored liquidation of its assets, including the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in St. John's.

The fate of the church, opened in 1915, is uncertain as the parish that has maintained it for generations continues to shrink, and prospective buyers consider whether to make a bid for the property before a June 2 deadline. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

But the thought of closing Holy Rosary as a place of Christian worship is a painful pill for some parishioners, including Michelle Martin.

"This is God's house. Jesus lives in the blessed sacrament, in the tabernacle there. And that's a huge part of why it should remain as God's house," she said.

"It's one of the most beautiful churches that we have and … it's a big part of who the people are here."

Martin and her son John were at the church on Tuesday, praying before the Stations of the Cross. 

'We pray for the victims'

She acknowledged that abuse victims have endured a horrible ordeal but said many Catholics are also suffering as the archdiocese plods its away toward an uncertain future, one largely being determined by lawyers, judges and real estate professionals.

"We pray all the time for the victims and the sufferings that they've endured. And pray for their healing. At the same time, we pray that this church and many of our other historic churches will be saved," said Martin.

The archdiocese was granted court protection from its creditors in December in order to conduct the liquidation process, and the bank accounts of parishes were seized to support the effort to pay compensation.

Archbishop Peter Hundt has declined interview requests related to the ongoing insolvency of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Each parish has been provided a base amount of operating capital, with the message being that only those that are self-sufficient will remain open.

Several parishes have already closed, and there's chatter in Portugal Cove that Holy Rosary is hanging by a thread.

Archbishop Peter Hundt has declined repeated interview requests, but in a statement, said he's been assured by the parish priest at Holy Rosary that Sunday mass will continue to be celebrated "at least for the time being."

Meanwhile, Michael Murray and his group have big plans for Holy Rosary as a gathering place for artists, the location of a heritage museum, and as a place for new Canadians and longtime residents to contribute side-by-side to the area's future.

"It's an important part of our community. So we see this as an opportunity to gather, bring people together and to repurpose and start again," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at:


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