Diocese of Saint John seeks input on parish restructuring plans

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Diocese of Saint John seeks input on parish restructuring plans

The Catholic Diocese of Saint John held a public meeting in St. George on Wednesday as part of its ongoing consultations about restructuring plans.

The diocese is looking at amalgamating some of its 23 parishes in the Saint John region and closing many well-loved churches, due to shrinking congregations and shortage of priests.

About 130 people gathered at St. George Catholic Church over the lunch hour to get details about the three proposed models designed to "revitalize and realign" the diocese.

The proposals would see the number of parishes reduced to either 17, 10 or four.

"Basically a lot of parishes are dwindling in number," Bishop Robert Harris told CBC News.

He estimates only about 10 per cent of the number of people the 83 churches were built for are "actually participating and supporting."

Statistics show 6,109 people attend one of the 57 masses held each weekend, an average of 107 people per mass.

"When you have few people, that means there's little revenue and the question is then, 'How can those few people take care of the building that they are now present in and worshiping in?'"

Nearly 40 per cent of the parishes are in trouble, said Harris. "Many of them regularly can't pay their operating costs" and the diocese can't cover the bills anymore, he said.

Ane while the diocese has managed to recruit some priests from Africa and Asia, there is still a shortage, with only 17 serving the 23 parishes, said Harris.

Harris said the decision will only be made after hearing from the church community. "So I'm not wanting to force something on them, I'd like them to say, 'Well yes, a change has to happen, and this is what we would suggest,'" he said.

For many people like Doreen Sheehan, the idea of losing the church they love is not easy.

"It would be hard really to get used to," she said of the prospect of losing her Holy Rosary parish in St. Stephen.

"I would love to see everyone keep their own church," she said.

But Sheehan recognizes restructuring is necessary for the priests, who are spread thin. "They have a lot to do," she said.

"Our priest has three churches and to go around to. Three churches is hard, especially in the wintertime," said Sheehan. "Of course the priests are getting older and we don't have enough priests."

Ronald Breau agrees. He is worried about his Stella Maris parish in Black's Harbour closing, but he acknowledges the dilemma the diocese is facing.

Attendance has been "dropping off over the years," said Breau. "The young children and kids, they're not going anymore. It's just elderly people. Well I'm one of the youngest ones, I'm sixty-eight."

"If you haven't got the people there, you just can't do it," he said.

The public will have until June 4 to provide feedback, either at scheduled meetings, online or by mail.

The diocese expects to announce its decision in January.

Whatever it decides, the bishop said he hopes "every single person, as parish groups, as family groups, will be able to sit down and say, 'Yes we regret the loss, but we're ready to embrace the future.'"