Church Closure Raises Questions

 At the morning service of St. Margaret Mary Church (SMM) on Sunday, April 28, the weekly bulletin included a three-page statement from the Archbishop. It was a canonical decree containing a string of “Whereas” paragraphs, followed by the terms under which SMM would merge in an “extinctive union” with the parish of Blessed Sacrament, in the Glebe.

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That afternoon, volunteers from the parish and the broader community gathered downstairs in the Mary Beattie Hall to celebrate another successful completion of the Sunday Suppers program. For the past 20 years, from October to April, teams of cooks, servers, dishwashers, and set-up-and-tear-down grunts had provided hot meals on cold nights to the less fortunate.

The end-of-season party has been a celebration of service to the community, but this year, it also felt like a wake – the end of the Sunday Suppers.

For those gathered, the details in the “Whereas” paragraphs raised questions.

For example, one of the “Whereas” statements maintained that the archdiocese had to “subsidize half the salary and benefits costs of the pastor for many years.”

But SMM pastors had been serving the parish only on a half-time basis. It’s a small parish. What about the other half of the pastor’s time?

Each pastor had other responsibilities for the diocese, such as serving Carleton University, administering to Ottawa hospitals, and providing vocational work for the archdiocese. 

The parish had been paying for its half of the pastor’s time. Was the decree suggesting that it pick up the tab for that outside work?

The decree cited some half-million dollars in needed repairs to the church. At the Sunday Supper gathering, you could see some of the work done in response.

The building report commissioned by the archdiocese had allocated a cost of $7,500 to repair water-damaged ceiling tiles in Mary Beattie Hall.  One evening, a couple of parishioners did the job themselves. Total cost: $50 in supplies.

Elsewhere, the building report had estimated $350,000 for masonry repairs. In response, SMM’s Finance Council (comprised of parishioners) sought a detailed proposal from a masonry firm.  Its estimated cost: $45,000.

On the basis of such contractor estimates, the Finance Council created a capital projects proposal that would cover essential masonry repairs, address some smaller projects, and establish a reserve fund for future needs. Proposed cost: a total of $100,000 – one fifth of the total repair costs cited by the decree. 

The Finance Council also recommended ways to raise money in the parish, such as enlisting the help of parishioners who had fundraising experience.

Meanwhile, the number of donors and the average donations began to rise. The Finance Council minutes note that, “Father Champoux indicated that he would convey this welcome news” at his next meeting with the Archbishop.

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It’s not known how the pastor presented this news, but the Archbishop’s decree refers to a “marginal increase in collections revenues” among the reasons to close the church.

In making the argument that SMM had to close because of demographic changes, decline in attendance, and insurmountable financial problems, the decree highballed the expense side of the ledger and lowballed the revenue side.

At the Sunday Supper gathering, parishioners held that, with densification of the community, a new reserve fund for capital costs, and the right management and leadership, the church would have a future. But management had other plans.

The decree also refers to a problem last January when rats infested SMM’s basement. Exterminators were called in and the hall was unrentable for at least a month to such organizations as Weight Watchers, Tai Chi classes, and Elections Canada.  

Some managers would handle such an incident discreetly by closing the facility until the matter was under control, and encouraging renters to return. Instead, signs were posted highlighting “RATS!” in capital letters and offering refunds for those wishing to cancel their rental contracts. Was this a deliberate effort to drive away renters and close off a revenue stream?

Undeterred and knowing that the rat problem could be quickly solved, the Finance Council sought a new rental partnership. It was pleased to advise the pastor that a tentative agreement had been reached with the Ottawa South Community Association (OSCA). Children’s programming space would be available across the street from the Firehall, and the parish would be on an excellent financial footing.

This was not welcome news to the Church authorities. The Finance Council was ordered not to sign anything with OSCA, pending an important letter coming from the Archbishop.  Soon after, the pending closure of SMM was announced.

The decree notes that the Archbishop is “satisfied that the care of souls will not be harmed as Blessed Sacrament Parish is within 1.6 km” of SMM.  Some of the Sunday Supper veterans said they would check out Blessed Sacrament. Others had already made other plans.

For some, the merger decision reminded them of earlier battles.

According to the decree, the decline of the parish began “after the year two thousand.” It did not mention that this corresponds with the decision by the Ottawa Catholic School Board to close St. Margaret Mary’s School, two short blocks south of the church.

Many of the Sunday Supper volunteers were among the group that had worked hard in 2002 to prevent the school’s closure.  In the end, they lost that fight. The land was sold to developers.

For its part, the school board assumed that the children of good Catholics would make the trip across the bridge and down Bank Street to pursue faith-based education.

Instead, many transferred to Hopewell. The parish may have lost some souls to the public education system, but the school board likely made a tidy profit on the sale of the land.

For some parishioners, the Church is a faith community; for others, it’s a social justice action group. By now, few are surprised to find that, for some others, the Church is a real estate development organization with certain tax advantages.

But as some at the Sunday gathering pointed out: the church is not a building. The church is the people who gather to worship and to serve God through their works. For Sunday Supper volunteers, the works have also included everything from keeping the community centre at the Firehall, to maintaining Windsor rink as the best outdoor ice in the city.

Having been defeated in the battle to save SMM church, the community activists who have been involved in the Sunday Suppers for 20 years will need to summon the strength and will to serve the community in different ways.

( 30 )

Originally published in the Old Ottawa South Community Association Review (OSCAR), June 2019. Don Cummer lives in Old Ottawa South and in Dublin, Ireland.  His son, Jacob, was baptized and took first communion at SMM.

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