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Stained glass windows at Saint-Nom-de-Jésus, or Holy Name of Jesus, church in Montreal. (Courtesy: Atelier d'histoire d'Hochelaga-Maisonneuve)
Stained glass windows at Saint-Nom-de-Jésus, or Holy Name of Jesus, church in Montreal. (Courtesy: Atelier d'histoire d'Hochelaga-Maisonneuve)

Part III

As churches crumble, communities fear loss of heritage Add to ...

Editor's Note: This is the third part of the Future of Faith series.

In the glory years of Christmases past, the pews of the Saint-Nom-de-Jésus Church in Montreal spilled over with 1,200 parishioners, their spirits lifted by the strains of O Holy Night on the mighty church organ.

This was no ordinary musical instrument: The 6,200-pipe Casavant was one of the world's largest, set in a sanctuary with 24-carat gold leaf decorations and stained-glass windows made in France.

These days, the century-old church is barricaded behind a fence, a sign on its front door warning of falling stones. Plaster is coming off the ceiling, and the organ, a jewel valued at $2.5-million, is being offered for free by the Montreal Archdiocese to any church in Quebec.

Given the state of church attendance in the province, it's unlikely to find any immediate takers.

The peril facing Saint-Nom-de-Jésus, or Holy Name of Jesus, is an almost unremarkable occurrence in Montreal and other parts of a province that prays at the altar of secularism. According to one estimate, 340 places of worship in Quebec of all denominations have either closed, undergone conversions or been demolished in the past decade, and the pace of the collapse is picking up each year.

"Those that remain may not face extinction, but they are threatened," said Lyne Bernier, an urban studies researcher at the University of Quebec at Montreal who is examining church heritage. She predicts 60 per cent of the surviving churches in Quebec today will close within 15 years.

"There's going to be an incredible wave," she said. "And the question is: What will we do with these churches? These are major questions, and they touch our heritage, our culture, our society."

The crumbling state of the churches is a physical embodiment of the state of religious observance - and the phenomenon is hardly limited to Quebec. From British Columbia to Newfoundland, places of worship of all mainstream denominations are falling victim to dwindling attendance, rising land values and maintenance costs too onerous for congregations to bear.

The United Church, the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, closes one church a week, and has shuttered more than 400 in the past decade. The Anglican Church, which said in a report this year it was hemorrhaging members, has seen eight churches close on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, and placed another six on a one-year watch list.

Yet as churches are shuttered, there are despairing questions about their fate. The twin steeples of Saint-Nom-de-Jésus dominate the brick and stone row-housing in Montreal's Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district, and a grass-roots campaign has sprung up to save the building and its pipe organ.

"It's not because you stop believing in Amon-Ra that you destroy the Pyramids," said Robert Cadotte, a psychologist and self-described atheist who is part of a community group fighting to save Saint-Nom-de-Jésus. The group is seeking private and public funds to turn it into a space for organ concerts. "We built this church with the sweat of our ancestors, and it's as if we want to destroy and bury it. But you don't destroy the soul of the neighbourhood. You don't take the most beautiful jewel of your heritage and throw it in the dump."

In fact, the demise of churches across Canada touches a chord in many communities. In a Newfoundland town near St. John's, officials stepped in to protect a century-old Anglican church after the parish's decision to demolish it set off a backlash. The old St. Philip's Anglican Church, a red-roofed building on an ocean bluff, had been replaced by a new church just a stone's throw away. Yet some community members fought to preserve it.

"There was still a sentimental attachment to it. People felt, 'it's our beloved old building, you can't tear it down'," Canon Elizabeth Barnes said. "It was really an icon for the community."

Closings can hit especially hard for former parishioners for whom the church was a second home, their family roots going back generations, anchored in the rituals of baptisms and weddings, funerals and Sunday school.

But the ripple effects of closings can extend beyond former parishioners, said Carolyn Quinn of the Heritage Canada Foundation, which has begun monitoring endangered places of worship. "It's not just the congregation, but the community at large that feels affected. These were meeting places, places for Cub Scouts and for exercise classes. They are landmarks in the community, and there's a community memory based on events that have happened there."

The churches were also the architectural and artistic treasures of their day, the pride of communities whose parishioners paid tithes to maintain them. It's been said that churches are to Quebec what the châteaux are to France. Yet today, pieces of this onetime patrimony are up for grabs; church bells in some unused parishes have been removed, and one set in the province was sold last year to a congregation in Vietnam. In the case of Saint-Nom-de-Jésus, which was closed last year, the Montreal archdiocese says it cannot keep paying the $100,000 a year required for heating, electricity and maintenance; it wants to sell the property and turn the site into public housing.

The sorry state of the church ensures one thing: Instead of O Holy Night at Midnight Mass this Christmas, Silent Night might be more suitable.

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