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Tourists walk through the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. (ANDRE FORGET)
Tourists walk through the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. (ANDRE FORGET)

Globe Essay

Neither practising nor believing, but Catholic even so Add to ...

The Church of the Holy Spirit, like so many of its Quebec sisters, is a breathtaking building that utterly dominates a transitioning Montreal avenue where the dollar stores are being squeezed out by upscale bistros. The church is an art-deco wonder that draws architecture buffs from afar. They marvel at its sleek stone façade and chiselled saints in relief.

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Too bad the church is also slowly crumbling. Inside, where fewer than a hundred are gathered for Sunday mass in a space that would easily hold nine times as many, signs all around warn of falling plaster. The majestic Casavant organ was nearly ruined last year, when the ceiling above it gave way. Only a fraction of its stops are working, but the church has no money to properly repair the organ or the rest of the decaying edifice.

"We perform miracles with very little," Rev. Pierre Rivard, the parish priest, says without a hint of irony. He estimates that about 5 per cent of his dwindling parishioners are under 60. Those on fixed incomes do their part, subtly slipping their loonies and toonies into the collection basket. But their generosity doesn't even cover the heating costs in winter.

The provincial government has a modest "religious heritage" fund that pays up to two-thirds of older churches' eligible renovation costs. But the approval process is long and the competition for scarce dollars intense. When and if the money comes, it won't be nearly enough to restore Holy Spirit to its rightful glory.

Such is the lot of Quebec's Catholic churches these days. With the exception of the tourist traps - such as Old Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica, which now charges admission - most of the province's majestic places of worship are now facing the dire physical consequences of Quebeckers' abandonment of organized religion since the Quiet Revolution.

Their forebears sacrificed what little they had - they had no choice, since it was forcibly extracted in the form of a tithe legalized in the Quebec Act of 1774 - to adorn Quebec with the biggest, most ornate parishes in the New World. But when baby boomers rebelled against the Church's repression and hypocrisy, against the tedious, ritualistic lives and fearful piety of their parents, they didn't ruminate.

A STRANGE PHENOMENON

Church attendance, which stood at more than 90 per cent before 1960, didn't so much collapse as vaporize - at least among those born after 1945. "At a precise moment, during the year 1966 in fact, the churches suddenly emptied in a matter of months. A strange phenomenon that no one has ever been able to explain," Father Leclerc, the priest in Denys Arcand's Barbarian Invasions , tells a French appraiser to whom he is trying to peddle church artifacts. The appraiser declares them commercially worthless, of value only to Quebeckers' collective memory.

Mr. Arcand overstates, for dramatic effect, the rapidity with which the pews were vacated. A sizable cohort of pre-boomers continued to attend mass regularly. But as they die off, the crisis in Quebec's churches intensifies. Unlike elsewhere in Canada, immigration has not provided the Catholic Church in Quebec with an infusion of new disciples. Holy Spirit is now home to the members of two neighbouring parishes whose churches were recently sold by the diocese. They were bought by evangelical Baptist congregations, whose members are largely Haitian immigrants.

According to a 2008 Léger Marketing poll, the proportion of Quebec's nearly six million Catholics who attend mass weekly now stands at 6 per cent, the lowest of any Western society. But therein lies the paradox. That more than 80 per cent of Quebeckers still declare themselves Catholics, according to the 2001 census, the most recent to survey religious affiliation, suggests an attachment to the faith. If not a spiritual one, at least a cultural one.

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