The Catholic Church is worried about what’s happening to their old churches

When Paul-Andre Durocher celebrated the seventh anniversary of his installation as the Archbishop of Gatineau, Que., on Friday, he did so in Rome, surrounded by hundreds of other Roman Catholic bishops from around the world — contemporaries for whom he had a cautionary tale to share.

Durocher was in the Italian capital for a conference on the decommissioning of Catholic churches, an accelerating trend that has started to worry the Vatican because some of those former houses of worship, in Canada, Europe and elsewhere, have since been refashioned into “profane” establishments.

These new, inappropriate enterprises include nightclubs, cafes and skate parks, The Telegraph reported from the conference. Speaking to the U.K. newspaper, Durocher said the worst conversion he’d ever heard of involved “a little church in Northern Ontario” that was deconsecrated and made into a strip club that later burned down.

The saga of that church’s transition unfolded about 40 years ago in Tunis, a tiny village near Timmins, Ont., Durocher said in an email. It was still on his mind as delegates gathered at the conference — which was entitled “Doesn’t God dwell here anymore?” — to consider the future of Catholic churches that are taken out of service and to spell out what those buildings should and should not be turned into.

Guidelines that were finalized on Thursday suggest that if a Catholic church can’t be handed over to another Christian community, it should be repurposed to promote a cultural or societal good, perhaps as a museum, a library or a food bank.

Uses that don’t fit the bill include a string of existing examples that were catalogued by The Telegraph: an ice cream parlour in Prague; a bar in Asti, Italy, whose name translates to The Red Devil; a restaurant in Liverpool where a gospel choir performs during Sunday brunch. Around the time the church in Tunis shut down, Durocher said, a church in his diocese was sold and transformed into a short-lived disco hall.

In a message read out at the start of the conference, Pope Francis said any decision about a church’s future use should consider the needs of the poor and be taken “in dialogue” with its community.

In Kingston, Ont., after a 19th century-era Catholic church closed its doors in 2013, the local diocese sold the adjacent property but maintained ownership of the church itself. Archbishop Brendan O’Brien said they’re hoping to turn the limestone building that used to house the Church of the Good Thief into an archive for each of the city’s Christian denominations.

“If it was simply sold off (and turned) into condos or something, I don’t think people would have been too happy,” he said, adding that parishioners understood the cost of trying to keep the church running would have been prohibitive and supported the diocese’s vision.

“It worked out very amicably,” he said.

Sacrilegious redevelopment has become an especially pressing issue to the Vatican because thousands of Catholic churches have shuttered around the world in the past two decades. Through a survey of Canada’s 60 Catholic dioceses, Durocher found that 450 churches have been decommissioned countrywide since 2000 — nearly a fifth of the 2,500 in operation at that time.

In Durocher’s view, this shrinkage can be explained by two concurrent causes: population growth has stagnated in rural Canada as more people move into cities, leaving some areas with an insufficiently small church-going population, while Canadians are also becoming more secular.

”The fact is that we have an overabundance of churches and that not all of them can be maintained,” Durocher said.

For his part, Pope Francis tried at the conference to assuage any such concerns by reminding the assembled bishops that they were “talking about the faith of the people of God.”

“As long as there is faith,” he said, “the people of God will need churches.”

With files from the Associated Press

Paul-Andre Durocher is shown in a 2011 file photo.


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