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At St. Barra’s Church, Christmas Eve will be a day of defiance for a group that wants to worship there despite a diocese that calls them trespassers

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A small group of locals listen to Rod Farrell, a warden of St. Barra’s Church, at a Sunday service on Christmas Island in Cape Breton.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

They’ll gather inside St. Barra’s on Dec. 24, as they do in churches all over the world, after the sun disappears and the Christmas lights begin to poke holes in the dark. The only difference is that these people aren’t supposed to be here.

In the eyes of the Catholic Church, they’re trespassers.

St. Barra’s Church has stood on Christmas Island in Cape Breton, one way or another, since 1815. Back then, parishioners came to this little hamlet by boat and horse-drawn buggy. Even earlier than that, they gathered here to worship at a primitive log cabin, speaking Gaelic instead of English, long before a priest was dispatched to lead them. “The Catholic Church wasn’t even a thought then,” says Rod Farrell, a rural mail driver who grew up in the community. “Here we are, and we’ve come full circle.”

Mr. Farrell, as a warden of the church, has become the unlikely leader of a group of renegade parishioners in a fight with their own diocese.

Five years ago, their bishop ordered St. Barra’s closed because of a shrinking congregation. Mr. Farrell, a plain-speaking postman who was baptized here and whose parents are buried here, refused to leave. A few dozen of his neighbours joined him.

On Christmas Eve, he’ll stand in front of them and do his best to lead a sermon that celebrates one of the most sacred times in the Christian calendar.

They’ll illuminate the big wooden cross out front with tiny red lights, and gather inside to the sound of flutes, guitars and bagpipes. A sign will hang at the front of the church, saying “all are welcome” in Gaelic.

They’re not allowed to call this celebration Christmas mass, because the diocese took their priest away. Funerals, communion and other services requiring a priest are also banned at St. Barra’s. Just being here is an act of defiance.

“This church means everything to us,” Mr. Farrell said.

“This place is a direct link to our ancestors. Think about what that means to us. This has been devastating.”

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Mr. Farrell is a postal worker who grew up in Christmas Island, and now the unlikely leader of the Roman Catholic church's renegade parishioners.

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St. Barra’s has existed in some form or another since 1815. Before that, Gaelic-speaking settlers worshipped together in a log cabin.

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Barry George, a church warden, holds a handwritten Gaelic sign reading 'all are welcome.' It is Dec. 13, less than two weeks before the planned Christmas Eve service.

While some parishioners have left for other churches, about a dozen people still gather here weekly. They argue St. Barra’s historical significance, and its connection to their rural village of fewer than 300, should spare it from being sold. They’ve made an appeal to the Vatican, saying the diocese has made an error in judgment.

The Diocese of Antigonish, which controls around 125 Catholic parishes in Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia, sees things very differently.

“They’re trespassing,” said Rev. Donald MacGillivray, a spokesperson for the diocese. “They have no legal right to be there.”

While the parishioners at St. Barra’s argue they have a deed from the 19th century naming the church’s trustees as its rightful owners, the diocese says the legal title is not in question – it owns the building and the land around it.

St. Barra’s was one of more than 25 churches ordered closed as part of a major restructuring in the diocese that began 10 years ago. It came in response to Cape Breton’s declining and aging rural population, and a shortage of clergy able to oversee an increasingly sparse network of parishes, Rev. MacGillivray said.

“We have to look at what’s best for the whole. And some hard decisions had to be made,” Rev. MacGillivray said. “We had too much infrastructure. Churches are expensive to maintain. And we had a declining ability to finance them.”

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Betty MacKenzie prays at St. Barra’s.

Mr. Farrell and others at St. Barra’s believe there’s another reason why their church was closed.

Eleven years ago, the Diocese of Antigonish reached a $15-million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by 125 victims of sexual abuse by Hugh Vincent MacDonald, who was a pastor at multiple churches in the diocese between 1950 and 2009.

“What they’re doing to us is just another form of abuse,” Mr. Farrell said. “We didn’t leave St. Barra’s – the Church left us.”

Rev. MacGillivray says there’s no connection between the church’s need to downsize and the settlement.

Cape Breton County has been in decline for decades with the loss of its coal and steel industries, and as communities have hollowed out, it’s been difficult to maintain churches spread across a vast rural area, he said.

He points out that there are two other Catholic churches within 25 kilometres of Christmas Island.

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The sign for Christmas Island comes with a Gaelic translation.

The Catholic church has a difficult history in Christmas Island, Mr. Farrell said. In the mid-1800s, the priest at St. Barra’s burned down the local shipyard because it was operating on Sundays – an act of destruction that the community never recovered from, he said.

Still, the bishop holds a lot of power over people here, Mr. Farrell said. Some parishioners were uncomfortable defying the diocese, and stopped attending when the church was ordered closed.

“You’re brought up from an early age [that] you don’t question the priest,” he said. “I have relatives who won’t attend services here.”

Mr. Farrell, who has no background as a priest, has had to learn how to act like one. He says he had some unlikely training. For almost six years, he cared for his mother at home until cancer took her last breath. That taught him that people can learn how to do things that are difficult just because they need to be done, he said.

On Sunday mornings at St. Barra’s, as he begins his sermon, he’s reminded of that. When he volunteered to do this a few years ago, he never intended to keep it up this long.

“It no longer feels foreign for me to be up there speaking,” he said. “It just feels like something I have to do.”

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