Nfld. & Labrador

With closure looming at a Newfoundland church, some Catholics ask the Vatican to intervene

A small group of Roman Catholics say they will take their fight to save Holy Rosary Church in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's all the way to Rome — but not everyone supports their cause.

Holy Rosary Church in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's does not fit future plans for insolvent archdiocese

A final mass is scheduled for Sunday at Holy Rosary Church in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, but a group of parishioners say they'll take their fight to save the church to the Vatican. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A small group of Roman Catholics say they will take their fight to save Holy Rosary Church in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's all the way to Rome — but not everyone supports their cause.

And the local chamber of commerce is waiting in the wings, prepared to buy the church as part of a wholesale auction of properties owned by the insolvent Archdiocese of St. John's and repurpose it as a community centre.

The final mass at Holy Rosary is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Sunday, but the last chapter in its 107-year history as a place of Christian worship is a controversial one.

"I will fight, and other people are willing to fight, to see justice served," Ed Martin, a parishioner at Holy Rosary, said Thursday.

When parishioners found out last spring their church would be sold, Martin and others rallied, raising tens of thousands of dollars through an online crowdfunding platform.

They thought they had saved their church when their bid was accepted in June by Ernst & Young, the accounting firm overseeing the sale of church properties.

Another section of the parish property that includes the rectory, parish hall and parking lot is being purchased by the Portugal Cove-St. Philip's chamber of commerce, which plans to establish a cultural centre. The chamber initially proposed buying the entire property, but modified its bid after learning parishioners wanted to save the church.

Ed Martin is chair of a committee that is lobbying to save Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church. (Zoom/CBC)

But in August, Archbishop Peter Hundt informed Martin and other committee members that Holy Rosary Church did not fit into the future plans for the archdiocese and he wouldn't make a priest available. 

Martin said Hundt told them a neighbouring church, Holy Trinity in Torbay, will be purchased with the assistance of the archdiocese and serve Catholics in the area.

Martin said parishioners felt blindsided by the decision, since Holy Trinity parishioners did not submit a bid on their church.

"I'm sorry but I find that very unjust," he said.

So Martin and "15 to 20" other Holy Rosary supporters are taking their case to the Vatican, the worldwide headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. He has written letters to Catholic leaders in Canada and in Rome.

"I've been in contact with canon lawyers … that have told me the procedure that's happened here in the archdiocese hasn't been following what the church says you're supposed to do," said Martin.

"So there is the potential that anybody who buys the church might find themselves in a legal tangle."

But it looks to be an uphill battle for Martin and his group. They have asked Ernst & Young for an extension of time to formalize their deal to acquire the church. "They flatly said that wasn't going to happen," said Martin.

But Martin said they will give up their fight only if the Vatican rejects their case.

Meanwhile, some members of Holy Rosary have accepted that their church will close, and they support a plan to transfer the successful bid for the church over to the chamber of commerce.

Chamber president Michael Murray was reluctant to comment Thursday, saying the matter was very sensitive.

But he confirmed the chamber is interested in acquiring the church "if the parishioners want to see that happen."

Michael Murray, a well-known business leader in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, is president of the town's chamber of commerce. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Martin acknowledged there is disagreement over a way forward, but he believes the congregation is strong enough to keep operating the church, and is frustrated that the archbishop is opposed to allowing a priest to officiate weekly church services at Holy Rosary.

Archbishop Peter Hundt has declined to speak with reporters during the ongoing and historic liquidation of assets owned by the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John's, which is the landowning arm of the archdiocese. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Hundt has refused to do recorded interviews, but in a statement Thursday to CBC News, he encouraged Catholics to continue to practise their faith in a neighbouring church.

"We understand and appreciate the important emotional and spiritual ties that many parishioners have to their parish church. Such is certainly the case for many of the involved and dedicated members of Holy Rosary church in Portugal Cove.

"We hope and pray that the final mass at Holy Rosary on Sunday may be a celebration that brings some consolation and comfort to the parishioners of the parish."

Hundt said the archdiocese has sought to "consult and work collaboratively with the people of the archdiocese in discerning how best to meet our legal and financial obligations to the victims of abuse while continuing to provide for the practice of the faith of all the Catholic people of the archdiocese. Sadly, this has meant having to make hard choices regarding the closing of particular churches."

The archdiocese is undergoing an unprecedented reckoning as it attempts to raise millions to compensate victims of abuse at the former Mount Cashel orphanage. A court-supervised sale of all properties, including churches, has been underway for months.

At the same time, a dramatic restructuring of the archdiocese's footprint on the Avalon and Burin peninsulas is underway because of shrinking attendance and a shortage of priests.

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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