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Cash-strapped Catholic churches in Quebec closing, selling artifacts amid tough fight for survival

Have you ever had to sell a treasured possession to pay your heating bill? How about an Old Master painting – would you give that up to keep the basement dry?

That was more or less the question facing the civil corporation (fabrique) of the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec, which is selling a painting by Jacques-Louis David to help maintain two historic churches in Quebec’s Old City. The 1779 painting of Saint Jerome has become the focus of an apparent tug of war between three Canadian museums, but its fate also shows how deep many churches have to dig to keep their buildings alive.

Monsignor Denis Bélanger, curé of the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec, says it costs around $750,000 annually to sustain and run the parish’s historic churches. As with old houses, he says, there’s always something that needs fixing. The cathedral where the David used to be displayed isn’t equipped to provide care and security for a canvas valued in the millions. The neo-Romantic French painting has already been on loan to museums for the past 30 years, Father Bélanger says.

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About 40 churches in Quebec fall out of use each year, often because dwindling congregations can no longer pay the bills. In some cases, the deterioration of the church’s earthly realm has fostered a new alliance of church and state.

Quebec City and the provincial government, for example, are supporting the historic churches of Father Bélanger’s parish to the tune of $30-million over 10 years. That largesse is founded on abstract values of cultural heritage, but also on the buildings’ appeal for tourists, who make up three-quarters of the 1 million who visit each year, according to a study in 2014.

The Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns), quit their last stronghold in Old Montreal a year ago because there aren’t enough nuns left to run it.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

This week also brought news that a forthcoming cull of many of the 58 churches in the diocese of Saint-Jérome, northwest of Montreal, could include one that is also a landmark in Quebec history. The church of Saint-Eustache was the scene of a decisive battle during the Patriote rebellion of 1837. British soldiers brought the fight right into the building, where the Patriotes had taken refuge. The church was partly burned, and significantly rebuilt during the 19th century, but the exterior still shows damage from British artillery.

This shrine of a doomed revolt against colonial power could soon have a “for sale” sign on it. A spokesman for the diocese told Le Devoir, quite reasonably, that the church’s mission “is not to maintain heritage buildings, but to proclaim the word of Jesus Christ.” The number of priests doing that work in the diocese has shrunk by two-thirds over the past 50 years, even though the population of nominal Catholics has tripled.

If Saint-Eustache is deconsecrated, its next use might be as a museum for the rebellion. There already is such a museum, at Montreal’s former Pied-au-Courant jail, where more than 1,300 Patriotes were imprisoned – and in some cases, hanged. A Saint-Eustache museum could be a more local affair, focused mainly on the actual battle. It would no doubt become a client of the provincial government.

It would also change into a full-on house of nationalist memory. As the church becomes ever weaker, institutions such as Saint-Eustache – and Notre-Dame de Québec, the oldest Catholic parish in North America – are increasingly recontextualized within political and civic history.


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(The church’s mission) is not to maintain heritage buildings, but to proclaim the word of Jesus Christ.

— A spokesman for the diocese of Saint-Jérome

The same thing is happening to sacred personalities. In March, sculptor Yann Pocreau was revealed as the winner of a competition to create a public art work in the Old Port of Montreal, at the new $78 million cruise terminal at Alexandra Pier. Mr. Pocreau’s arching metal sculpture is meant to commemorate three women involved in the early history of Montreal: Jeanne Mance, Marguerite Bourgeoys and Saint Marguerite d’Youville.

All three women were major figures in the establishment of Catholic orders and hospitals in the city. Their apotheosis at an entirely secular spot devoted to tourism is another step in defining them primarily as historic civic personalities, rather than as saintly Catholics.

Ironically, d’Youville’s dwindling order, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns), quit their last stronghold in Old Montreal a year ago, because there aren’t enough nuns left to run it. Half of the building will remain a museum, while the rest may become offices for the University of Montreal.

A spokesperson for the Grey Nuns says the order, which sold its gigantic convent to Concordia University in 2007, will lose its last aging member within 30 years. With the candles out in the Sisters’ deconsecrated chapels, it will be up to the city to keep a flame burning for the Catholic heroes of old.

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