Future of some Catholic churches in doubt as Saint John diocese struggles

Future of some Catholic churches in doubt as Saint John diocese struggles

With congregations getting smaller, the Catholic Diocese of Saint John has proposed amalgamating and even closing churches across the province to solve some of its financial problems.  

Hundreds of people gathered in Fredericton this week to discuss the future of the Catholic Church in New Brunswick.

"We're faced with the challenge of trying to maintain 83 buildings on the one hand, but also to have viable communities gathering in each church," said Robert Harris, bishop of the Saint John diocese, which includes parishes in the Saint John, Fredericton and Miramichi areas. 

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"It's not just a question of maintaining buildings, it's what's going on within the building." 

About one in 10 people in the diocese attend church, Harris said.

And in 2015, there were more funerals in the Fredericton region than there were baptisms, confirmations and weddings. 

"We don't have any magic solution," he said.

But not everyone agreed closing churches should be a solution.

Juanita Gaudet attends the Church of St. Columba in Fredericton Junction, one of the churches that could close.

She said she was shocked by the proposal put forward by the diocese.

"We are a spiritual family," she said. "For us to have to go into Oromocto or into the city, we are going to lose our parishioners. We are going to lose our youth."

"The main challenge that we have is to try to be a church that is basically focused on the mission," he said. "That we gather people together in an intergenerational community where we have young people, teenagers, adults, seniors."

Fewer priests

There's also the problem of finding enough priests throughout the diocese.

"We can't continue the way we were," Harris said. "The status quo can't continue because we really can't support such a structure."

In March, the diocese was also in Rome to meet with Pope Francis to discuss the issue and how to move forward.

"He said, 'I'm happy to hear you're including the laity in the process and remember the Holy Spirt," Harris recalled. "I receive that as endorsement."

A work in progress

The diocese is looking for input from congregations, and meetings are expected to continue next week in the Saint John area.  

Harris is looking for feedback and recommendations from the public until the end of June. Then, he'll review that information for six months with the help of an implementation committee.

The diocese is hopeful the plans will be place for 2018.

"In a village or in a town, the church has been a very important part of that community and historically it's been there," he said. "The reality is, who's going to keep that church going? 

"It has to be the local community."