Whither the downtown Montreal churches?

Published May 1, 2003

Montreal’s Christ Church Cathedral was put on solid financial footing with the development of an office building, right, on one end of the property.


Archbishop Andrew Hutchison has a problem in the heart of old Montreal: too many churches, not enough people.

It is an issue that plagues many dioceses – beautiful, historic buildings that are expensive to maintain but have dwindling congregations.

“The diocese once had 100,000-plus Anglicans on parish rolls and now we’re down to 20,000 – with the same infrastructure,” he said in an interview. Last October, Archbishop Hutchison outlined the situation in blunt terms at the annual diocesan synod. Naming seven urban churches and Christ Church Cathedral, he told delegates that “the combined congregations … on any given Sunday total about 850 people – a number that could be accommodated in any one of at least four of those churches and still leave room for more.”

He also noted that “together they employ eight clergy, with combined operating expenses of close to a million dollars a year, and hold between $45 million and $50 million in capital assets.” Maintaining the buildings has forced them to eliminate curacies, cut their support of the diocesan mission budget, reduce staff and draw on capital reserves, he added.

The eight churches all have distinct personalities. Christ Church Cathedral was put on a solid financial footing 15 years ago through the successful development of an office building at one end of its city block. Three churches are located in the old English-speaking neighbourhood of Westmount: St. Stephen has a crumbling interior but a lively ministry to street people; St. Matthias, a stately church on a hill, needs a new roof and has beautiful stained glass windows; Church of the Advent is a small building with a wooden interior that also needs repair but has provided a home to Peruvian refugees and Romanian Orthodox worshippers.

Then there are the three remaining churches downtown: St. John the Evangelist is known for its red roof and runs a lunch program for street people; St. George, which was founded in 1842, now stands among office buildings rather than Victorian homes and St. James the Apostle, which can hold 900 people but gets 80 to 90 on any Sunday morning, is now crowded by Concordia University, which has expanded next to it.

If the problem is clear, the solution is not. Of the seven churches (not including the cathedral), only one, St. James the Apostle, is owned by the diocesan bishop; the others are the property of the parishes. The bishop therefore, cannot make a unilateral decision concerning a church building.

Since the buildings all have some historic value and some have received renovation funds from the province of Quebec’s Religious Heritage Foundation, which places restrictions on demolition, it would be extremely difficult to get permission to tear them down.

In addition, said Archbishop Hutchison, many English-speaking Montrealers see their Anglican church as a last bastion of anglophone culture in a city and a province, that in the past 30 years, has seen a burgeoning of French culture, a vigorous separatist movement, a reaction against churches as a symbol of authority and an exodus of anglophone residents and corporations.

However, Archbishop Hutchison said he would like parishes to think creatively about combining ministry.

Toward that end, Archbishop Hutchison announced last fall that Canon William Blizzard, rector of St. Matthias and priest-in-charge at St. George, would chair a committee of representatives from the downtown churches. However, said Canon Blizzard in an interview, while the committee has met monthly, few seem willing to entertain drastic change. “I think we need a facilitator. We need to hold people’s feet to the fire,” he said. Members seem to feel that “if I temporize long enough, he will go away,” he said.

While some congregations have merged for special services, such as Remembrance Day and Good Friday, many parishioners are resisting closing or selling churches that have witnessed generations of social and family history.

Rev. Lawrence Mascarenhas, a retired priest who is temporarily handling services at the Church of the Advent, which does not now have a full-time rector, acknowledged the situation. “They all want to stay (in their buildings) and continue to function. Each congregation has come up with its own plan as to why they can continue, or they say, ‘You close and come join us,'” he said in an interview. The Advent, which can seat 500, has 60 families on its parish list and draws 25 to 30 people on an average Sunday, he said.

Gordon Turner, rector’s warden at St. James, said parishioners are upset by the prospect of radical change. “Nobody likes uncertainty. They feel, ‘This is my church. Who has the right to sell my church?'” he said.

The churches also have different worship styles – high church, low church, jazz, organ, evangelical, eucharist every Sunday, eucharist every other Sunday – that could make mergers difficult, clergy said.

One innovative project Archbishop Hutchison cited concerned the old Church of the Ascension in the northern Montreal district called Mile End. Sold to the city several years ago, it was converted to a library, its stained glass renovated and history displayed and the $1 million proceeds were used to establish the Mile End Mission, a storefront centre that serves the low-income neighbourhood.

The cathedral has been the beneficiary of the development of Cathedral Place, which features a tasteful 34-story office tower that generates income for the church and provides office space for the diocese.

Archbishop Hutchison said he is sensitive to the strong feelings people have for their neighbourhood church but questions whether they should be “devoted to buildings at all costs.” A decade ago, he said, there were eight or nine fully-funded curacies in the diocese. Now there are none. “I can’t place a young person in a parish because none can afford it. Are we prepared to sacrifice our clergy? I can’t afford a full-time youth co-ordinator or a communications officer. All this investment in buildings is crippling our ministry,” he said.

Ironically, the question of Montreal’s downtown churches has been around for some 30 years. A 1970 newspaper article said St. John the Evangelist and St. James “will topple before the wrecker’s hammer” as the Anglican church restructured its “inner-city mission.”

They are, of course, still standing.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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