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Carole Morin and her husband, Denis Perron, were about to head out for some holiday shopping last month when the phone rang and they learned that her two young daughters weren't officially part of the Roman Catholic Church.

Someone from the diocese of St-Jérôme had called to tell them their children's baptisms were not valid.

"That took us by surprise. We first thought it was a prank," Ms. Morin recalled yesterday.

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In an embarrassing slip-up, the baptisms of nearly 300 children at a Roman Catholic parish in Pointe-Calumet, a small town north of Montreal, have been declared invalid because they weren't performed properly.

Baptism, the Christian sacrament of cleansing and rebirth, is a rite that indicates a child is ready to enter his or her church community.

"We've always been told that if you're not baptized, you're not a Catholic, so it meant our kids didn't have a religion. If the kids weren't baptized, they'd be in limbo if they die," said Ms. Morin, a freelance video technician.

Technically, her daughters would need to be baptized again to participate in other Catholic rites, including taking communion or being married in a Catholic church.

For several years now, the diocese of St-Jérôme has been quietly contacting the families of 295 children, offering to rebaptize them.

Starting in 1991, the lay person who officiated mistakenly let the parents pour holy water on their children's forehead while she pronounced blessings.

Now the families have been told that this was an erroneous procedure and that the same person should have performed both acts. The Catholic church does not require that person to be a priest.

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No one noticed the problem until 1996, when a sharp-eyed, knowledgeable grandmother spotted the anomaly.

The error is a telling sign of changing times in Quebec, once devoutly Roman Catholic but now staunchly secular.

Ms. Morin said the diocese called her on the Thursday before Christmas and offered to rebaptize her children two days later.

However, this was just before Christmas and her daughters, Valérie, 9, and Stéphanie, 8, didn't want to go through with the ritual again, so Ms. Morin says a new baptism is now on hold.

A Catholic authority, Rev. Dan Donovan, said the parents shouldn't worry about it.

"In the old days, people used to think that if a little child wasn't baptized and died before reaching the age of reason, he wouldn't be able to go to heaven. It's no longer part of contemporary Catholic faith," he said in an interview.

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"Catholics take their sacraments seriously but it's not the only way Christ comes to us," said Father Donovan, a theology professor at St. Michael's College, at the University of Toronto.

The diocese of St-Jérôme did not return calls yesterday.

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