St. John's basilica sold for more than $3 million to pay survivors of church abuse

·4 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The bells at the historic basilica overlooking St. John's rang out Tuesday after a committee intent on preserving the cathedral announced it was chosen as the building's new owners.

The 167-year-old Basilica of St. John's the Baptist was put up for sale along with two other church properties as part of bankruptcy proceedings undertaken by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's, as it scrambles to pay survivors of sexual and physical abuse at the former Mount Cashel Orphanage.

The cathedral was sold as part of a parcel of properties that included St. Bonaventure's College — a Jesuit private school behind the cathedral — as well as the school’s indoor ice rink.

Rob Blackie, part of the committee behind the successful bid to buy the three buildings, said Tuesday he felt "relieved and euphoric and humbled."

"It was an incredible turning point that we decided to approach it as a collective … and that we would put in a bid with the view that we were protecting the entire block," said Blackie, who is also chair of the board of governors at the school.

St. Bonaventure's joined the corporation that runs its rink, along with the Basilica Heritage Foundation — a charity dedicated to the history and upkeep of the cathedral — to submit a bid to buy the properties for more than $3 million. The group has said they intend to keep the school and rink running and to maintain the cathedral as a faith, heritage and cultural centre and as a parish for central St. John's.

The city's archdiocese was left liable for abuse committed at the St. John's orphanage between the 1940s and 1960s, following a Supreme Court of Canada decision in January 2021. Settlements are expected to top $50 million.

In an effort to raise the money, 25 parcels of properties and land owned by the archdiocese — including the basilica and 17 other churches, St. Bonaventure's and its ice rink, an apartment complex, and a francophone school — were put up for tender on March 4. Bids had to be submitted to trustee Ernst & Young Inc. by June 2.

Blackie said his group was notified Monday that its bid was successful, though he noted the sale is still subject to approval by the province's Supreme Court. They told the students and staff at the school the next day.

He said it was John Fitzgerald, executive director of the Basilica foundation, who decided Tuesday during a Zoom meeting with the committee to turn on the basilica's "joy bells," which could be heard throughout downtown St. John's that afternoon.

"We thought he was kidding," Blackie said. "But he literally, in the moment, just spontaneously decided to turn the joy bells on as an act of celebration."

Before the committee formed to submit a joint bid, Blackie said he and the rest of his board at St. Bonaventure's were fighting to have the school removed from the list of properties to be sold. Rather than feel daunted by the pending acquisition, Blackie said he and his team have big dreams for repairs and upgrades to the building — work that has been needed for quite some time, he added.

There are similar dreams for repairs to the basilica, he said. As for how the committee raised the $3 million to buy the buildings, Blackie was blunt: “We begged,” he said. “That’s pretty much how it happened. It’s all private donors.”

Most donations came from people in Newfoundland and Labrador, but some came from outside the province, he added.

"This is part of the heritage of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it's part of the heritage of Canada," he said. "And I think people were really moved by the notion that these important pieces of public architecture could be owned privately and could be redeveloped for some other purpose."

He said he doesn't know if others had submitted bids to buy the properties.

A spokeswoman for Ernst & Young Inc. was unavailable for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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