Catholic parishioners defy bishop by using Cape Breton church
St. Barra's closed 4 years ago, but parishioners continue to hold prayer services, other events
A group of Catholic parishioners in Christmas Island, N.S., is defying the local bishop by continuing to use their church.
The more than 200-year-old St. Barra's Church has been closed since 2015 and the parishioners were supposed to join St. Columba Parish in nearby Iona.
However, every Sunday, the parishioners meet to read scripture and discuss their faith, and some community events continue to take place during the week.
The parishioners say they understand they can't have a priest at their church because priests are scarce and the area is suffering from population decline.
"All we would be asking is to have a priest consecrate the host for us so lay ministers could distribute communion," church warden Rod Farrell told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton.
"It's not a big ask, but it's one that the bishop doesn't seem prepared to provide."
The church opened in 1815 and was succeeded to the Wardens of the Church of St. Barra in 1838 by Donald McNeil and his wife, Mary. Farrell said at that time, the wardens held the church property on behalf of the congregation.
However, in 1909, the Act to Consolidate and Amend the Acts Relating to the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Antigonish ceded all real estate and personal property of Catholic churches in Cape Breton and other counties to the Catholic Episcopal Corporation of Antigonish. The act was reinforced by other provincial legislation in 1961.
Farrell said after the church closed, the Diocese of Antigonish disconnected the heating system, but the wardens have had it reconnected.
He said parishioners donate what they can each week to keep the church running, and they hope other Catholics will offer moral support.
Farrell said St. Barra's was the first Scottish Gaelic church in Cape Breton, and possibly in North America.
"We ask Cape Bretoners to join us in restoring the historical integrity of the church on this island," he said.
Farrell also said the diocese has warned that unauthorized people on the property could be held liable for any damages.
Diocese disagrees on ownership
Father Donald MacGillvray, spokesperson for the Diocese of Antigonish, told Information Morning Cape Breton the church belongs to the diocese.
He said the parishioners appealed the church closure to Rome and failed.
MacGillivray said he is unsure if there are any specific plans for St. Barra's.
"I'm not absolutely certain what the immediate plan is for that building, all I know is that generally speaking, all excess property in the diocese is being sold," said MacGillvray.
Farrell said he and the rest of the parishioners hope to keep St. Barra's open so they can host more events there, such as concerts and community meetings.
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With files from Information Morning Cape Breton