Thursday, June 08, 2006

Quebec scrambles to save its churches

Politicians call for funds to support the province's religious heritage


From Thursday's Globe and Mail

QUEBEC — Drive through city neighbourhoods, or through the towns and villages that dot Quebec's countryside, and often the most distinctive feature is the church steeple, a reminder of a not-too-distant past when religion dominated people's lives.

But many of those churches are falling apart. And with fewer Quebeckers going to church regularly, there is less money in the collection plate to cover the costs of upkeep and repairs.

Congregations are merging and once-magnificent structures are being boarded up, listed for sale or demolished.

Pipe organs, sculptures and paintings that once adorned churches are being sold to the highest bidder.

This week a National Assembly committee gathered within the walls of Saint-Roch Roman Catholic Church, one of Quebec City's architectural jewels, to release a report calling for a moratorium on the sale of all churches until January of 2008.

It also proposed creation of a Council on Religious Heritage to help save the province's estimated 4,000 places of worship, convents, monasteries and other religious sites, which it said were worth between $3-billion and $4-billion.

It recommended that the government contribute $15-million a year to the fund, which would also be financed by gifts from private donors.

"This is a national priority, it is the identity of Quebec and of its diversity," Parti Québécois committee co-chairman Daniel Turp said. "These measures should be adopted very soon . . . it's time to act and I hope the Quebec government and the Ministry of Culture understands that there is an emergency."

A half-century ago, eight in 10 Quebeckers regularly attended mass.

Today, that number is less than one in 10. The number of priests in Quebec has dropped by 1,500 in the past decade, and the average age of priests and nuns in convents and monasteries is over 85.

Rémi Gagnon, who is responsible for church councils in the Quebec City diocese, said congregations have barely been able to protect their valuable possessions and if nothing is done soon, most of them will be lost.

"We have here churches, works of art, religious orders that are extremely costly to maintain. And we simply can't afford to do it alone," Mr. Gagnon said.

"We need help from charity groups, as well as from the government.

"We need long-term stable funding, to preserve and protect our religious heritage."

Even Saint-Roch, Quebec City's largest church, which has undergone a $2.5-million facelift, still requires $200,000 to cover the cost of further repairs.

Saint-Roch parish priest Réal Grenier said the pipe organ needs to be restored and the foundation repaired.

"We rent office space in the basement to community groups and that helps generate revenues," Father Grenier said.

"But at the other parish church we haven't been so lucky. We may have to shut down Notre-Dame-de-Jacques-Cartier Church," Father Grenier continued, "because building regulations prohibit us from renting out space that would generate much-needed revenues."

Father Grenier said attitudes toward churches are slowly evolving.

"Churches no longer belong exclusively to religious orders, but they belong to our cultural heritage that must now include the involvement of governments and the entire community," he said.

"And this conversion must also include proper funding and not just some pipe dream filled with good intentions."

Over the years, some churches have been converted into condominiums, libraries, office space and even concert halls.

In Quebec City, in one remarkable instance, the Saint-Esprit Church has been transformed into a school to train circus performers.

In some cases the architectural value of the buildings and some of the assets left by artists, architects and masons were preserved.

But in other instances, everything was gutted and none of the history remains.

"If we don't do things soon, it is going to be too late," Mr. Turp, chairman of the National Assembly committee, said.

Original: : Quebec scrambles to save its churches

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: