By Richard Bell
Archbishop Anthony Mancini’s announcement on June 16 of the closing of five of the eight Catholic churches on the Eastern Shore has ignited a powerful protest from the parishioners of St. Anslem’s in West Chezzetcook, including the formation of a new society, the Friends of St. Anselm’s Society, dedicated to re-opening the church. The society has already appealed to Mancini to reverse his decision about St. Anselm and plans to appeal all the way to Rome if necessary, a process that may take several years.
Christian churches in Canada and the U.S., both Catholic and Protestant, have been wrestling with a decades-long decline in church attendance and revenues, leading again and again to the merger of congregations and the closure of treasured local churches. Just last fall, the 5 Anglican churches on the Eastern Shore decided to merge into one church.
The Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth has been planning to reduce the number of churches on the Eastern Shore for several years, and had launched a long process to achieve this goal. In his letter of June 16, 2019, Mancini presented the dismal statistics: attendance at the 8 churches was down 45% between 2001 and 2016, and the remaining attendees were growing older. The churches had seating for 1600, but fewer than 600 people were attending weekly.
Managing such contraction is bound to be difficult. As the Archdiocese’s Father James Mallon told the Cooperator in a phone interview, “There was no overall way that doesn’t involve the pain of losing something for some of the parishes.”
But the abrupt closure of St. Anslem in November 2018 precipitated a wave of anger and distrust. There was no forewarning: at the end of Mass, the priest suddenly announced that because of the detection of mold, the church was closing, with no indication of when, or even if, it would ever be re-opened.
And like many other bureaucracies caught in such dilemmas, the Archdiocese chose to limit the amount of information going to the public from the deliberations of a Transition Team, run by the Archdiocese with a representative of each of the 8 churches. The Archdiocese swore the lay members of this team to secrecy, which held until an unidentified member chose to leak some of the documents.
Claims and Counterclaims
The lack of transparency, coupled with the abrupt closure of St. Anselm, created a toxic stew of counterclaims, charges of lying, and general confusion. Larry McWha, the Treasurer of the Finance Council at St. Philip Neri, resigned after the Transition Team refused to consider discrepancies that he claimed were “not just misleading, but almost entirely fabricated” to falsely make St. Philip Neri appear to be in financial distress.
Madeline Oldham, one of the founders of the Friends of St. Anselm, expressed similar concerns about some of the numbers in Mancini’s June 16 announcement.
The cost of cleaning up the mold and other repairs was estimated at over $400,000. But the parishioners had gotten an independent estimate of $80-$100,000 from a reputable mold remediation company. “We were willing to foot the bill for this clean up,” Oldham said.
Mancini also reported that St. Anselm and St. Anne were in debt to the diocese to the tune of almost $1 million. Oldham said, “We’ve asked for our financial files, but they’ve denied us, so we can’t really respond. We have been met with a wall of silence.” As for the attendance figures, Oldham said, “We know these numbers are incorrect. We believe they were skewed to make St. Genevieve look like the best choice of all the churches to remain open.”
Oldham said that Friends of St Anselm intended to pursue their appeals all the way to Rome, if necessary. “Canon law 1222 says there has to be a ‘grave reason’ for a bishop to close a church,” Oldman said, “like if a building is beyond repair, or burned down. Our church has been well maintained, with over $250,000 in repairs over the last 10 years.”
Mallon denied that the church closing decision was “some kind of ‘evil plot’ hatched by the diocese.” He compared the current moment of looking carefully at the church’s current situation to the moment of “pulling a Band-Aid off a wound. For the last 20 years, we’ve been asking priests to do more and more with less and less. We’re aiming to turn that around, to do fewer things well, with more resources behind them. We don’t want priests to be spending all their time raising money to keep the buildings open. We’d like to see no more than 30% of ordinary income go to keeping the buildings up.”
Oldham said that the Friends of St Anselm was working hard to garner support for keeping the church open. “We’re the 2nd largest Acadian church in Nova Scotia,” she said. “We have reached out to the Acadian Congress and other Acadian groups for help.”
On the legal front, she said she had been told that there is no qualified Canon lawyer in Nova Scotia. “We haven’t sought legal advice so far,” she said. “Our finances as a society are very limited. We did put out a request on our Facebook page for pro bono legal aid. I know we have many obstacles to overcome, but I feel confident that the truth will emerge, and we can provide some transparency to this situation.”