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'It's overwhelmingly painful': Theology professor shares insight on impact Maritime church closures have on some

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A growing trend of century-old churches being closed, sold and/or demolished in the Maritimes is a sad reality many parishioners are starting to get used to.

Just this week alone, the closure of two Halifax churches and a New Brunswick monastery were announced.

David Deane, an associate professor of theology at the Atlantic School of Theology, points to a decline in membership as one of the main reasons why these closures are happening.

"Many of these churches were built in a time when every single Canadian went to church on a Sunday, whether they're religious or not, and this is not the situation today," he said.

"There is far less need for places to house large congregations on a Sunday than there was, say in 1970 or 1975."

On Monday, the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth announced the closures of Halifax's Saint Theresa's Church and Saint Patrick's Church following recommendations from the parish leadership of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi Parish.

The spokesperson for the archdiocese listed finances, attendance, pastoral capacity, proximity to other churches, as well as structural concerns as reasons for the closures.

"The closures that you're seeing now have come when the parishes decided that the expense of keeping some church buildings open could be better invested in growth and restructuring with a more consolidated one main parish church approach," he said.

Deane says the impact these closures have can be significant for those who have close connections to the churches.

"The churches are set for sacred use and so they're consecrated and there needs to be service, something really akin to a funeral mass, where the churches are set aside for non-sacred use, or profane use and this is a canonical procedure in keeping with Canon Law," explained Deane.

"But the funeral metaphor is important in that while it's probably practical and probably for the best that the church restructures like this, it's overwhelmingly painful for parishioners who the church, it just flows through their DNA, these buildings. They've buried people there, they've baptized people there, it's who they are and so it's a tremendously painful process for people letting go of these churches."

According to Deane, the Catholic Church, like many other churches, saw a "tremendous decline" in numbers between about 1970 and 2008.

"But it's really interesting that since 2008, the numbers of Catholics attending Mass hasn't decreased and indeed in the last few years, it's ticked up a bit," he explained.

"Also, the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth has baptized more adults in the past 12 months than any other year in its history."

Deane says these numbers show the Roman Catholic Church isn't numerically declining.

"So, the question is, how do we best use our resources to grow, to do outreach, to help people with issues of homelessness, with issues of people in need, and also to spread the faith as we move into the 21st century," he said.

"So, that's the challenge that these parishes have. It's not, how do we mourn decline? It's partly that, but it's also, how do we manage the growth that hopefully we're going to experience and are experiencing in the first quarter of the 21st century?"

As far as churches being demolished, Deane says the loss of their history and architectural beauty would be tragic.

"In Ireland where I'm from, the landscape is littered with former churches. There's places near where I lived that were thriving churches in the 12th and 13th century and now they're rubble. This is tragic, but this is also the rhythms of the Christian life that over the 2,000 years of Christianity, certain architectural styles have evolved and they've decreased and churches have come up and come down and these are the rhythms of not simply the Christian life, but a human life. Of birth, of excitement, of delight, of death, of decline, of tragedy, and of rebirth and regrowth," said Deane.

"So, while it is tragic and while there will be an artistic and cultural loss, there are also new beautiful things that will emerge."

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