From shaken to secured, new owners of N.L. Catholic church properties divided

·4 min read
The Town of Flatrock has purchased Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, a landmark site blessed by Pope John Paul II during a 1984 papal visit. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
The Town of Flatrock has purchased Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, a landmark site blessed by Pope John Paul II during a 1984 papal visit. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

Danny Kavanagh has been attending St. Michael's Catholic church in Flatrock for 68 years.

For Kavanagh, the church is more than a building; it's a meaningful place where he's taken and witnessed the faith's ceremonies, from baptisms and weddings to funerals. It's also where he's spent major holidays, like Christmas and Easter, with generations of family and friends.

"It's the heart and soul, really, of a small community in Newfoundland," said Kavanagh, who is also the finance committee chair for St. Michael's church in Flatrock and St. Agnes church in Pouch Cove.

Kavanagh's church was one of 13 sold Monday as Newfoundland and Labrador's Supreme Court approved the sale of 43 Roman Catholic properties to compensate Mount Cashel sexual abuse victims, with more properties on the Avalon and Burin peninsulas to be put up for sale.

The Town of Flatrock was the successful bidder in the process approved by the court.

Kavanagh says the town is now planning a meeting about raising money to buy the building. Kavanagh said he has high hopes they'll create a corporation or holding company to keep St. Michael's as a church; if they don't, he says, the town may have to sell it or turn it into a multipurpose building.

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

Miracles needed to save the church

The town also purchased Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, a landmark site Pope John Paul II blessed and prayed at in 1984.

"It is absolutely a sight to behold. It's a thing of beauty," said Kavanagh. "It is a welcoming beacon, say, for the fisherman, from our forefathers, our fathers and the present fishermen."

Kavanagh said the grotto is more than just an earthly shrine; it's also a place where divine miracles are rumoured to have occurred.

"There's been people that have told our parishioners, told our parish priests over the years that they've gone there to say prayer and to make vigils there. And they have had miracles occur to them to relieve some of the various illnesses." he said.

But now Kavanagh is praying for a miracle of his own to save the church.

"Whether or not the people that are presently attending are able to raise funds to buy it, I guess remains to be seen," he said, describing the remaining faithful parishioners bearing the brunt of church sales as "Q-tip heads, or white-haired people."

He said he understands why the church properties need to be sold to compensate abuse victims but believes the process has dragged on for far too long.

"I'm disappointed that they had their heads in the sand so long that they didn't look after those victims," he said.

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

Still, Kavanagah says the community felt like the church belonged to them.

"It's disgraceful and distasteful because the people, our forefathers, our parents or grandparents, we built it, put it there, and to have it taken away and then expecting you to buy it back, something that's your own, it's unbelievable, unacceptable," he said.

"And it's something that a lot of parishioners are not going to get over and not going to accept."

Kavangah says his own faith has been shaken so deeply he's not sure if he can bring himself to attend even if St. Michael's remains a church. And if it doesn't, his hopes of having his own funeral there will be dashed.

"The church is a building, but I would have liked to have it there for me on my final resting that I could be wheeled out through the doors of that church as I look over Flatrock harbour," he said.

Association for New Canadians secures home base

Less than 20 kilometres away, in the east end of St. John's, Megan Morris, executive director of the Association of New Canadian, said buying St. Pius X Church and the adjoining former St. Pius X Junior High has made their future more secure.

The school, which has been the non-profit's home for the past 20 years, is where the organization provides classes in English as a second language, child care and other services for newcomers to the province.

Morris says they need more space to help a "huge number of newcomers" and were already in the market for a decommissioned school when their current home came up for bids during the court-monitored sale process.

"Our operations are safe, secure. We don't have to move. We can restructure the space when we need it and there's just a sense of security, knowing that you own the property," said Morris.

Morris wouldn't disclose the purchase price but said the organization paid fair market value close to the appraised value of the building.

"It was a smart decision for us economically because we'll own the property. It is a capital asset that we'll have in the future."

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