Without weekend mass, the collection plate does not go around. CP photo

COVID-19 shutdown an added burden for Quebec’s struggling Catholic churches

Many churches operate on shoestring budgets and rely on aging volunteers to keep running

MONTREAL — Rev. Jean-Luc Laflamme knows that Thetford Mines has seen better days. The “golden age” in the working-class community in southcentral Quebec, best known for its now-closed asbestos mines, was in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.

But life has changed in the town of over 16,000 residents, and many of the area’s Roman Catholic churches, which Laflamme said once numbered five in Thetford Mines alone, have gradually been forced to shut their doors.

Today, just one remains open: Saint-Alphonse, a towering, grey granite building with a white steeple that was built in the early 1900s.

Normally, the church would host three weekend masses, said Laflamme, the head priest in the Thetford Mines area: one on Saturday and two on Sunday.

But services have not been held at Saint-Alphonse in weeks, as the church is among thousands across Canada that have suspended all in-person services to stem the potential spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

In Quebec, where the Catholic Church historically played a central role in society but has in recent years struggled with low attendance and a lack of revenue, the closures have made an already difficult situation worse.

“We’re not in peril,” said Laflamme, but the economic impact of COVID-19 is already clear.

Without weekend mass, the collection plate does not go around, and that typically brought in between $5,000 and $6,000 every month, he said. Funerals were also a place where donations could be collected, but they too have been cancelled.

Meanwhile, it costs approximately $25,000 per year to heat Saint-Alphonse, Laflamme said, and the church has other expenses, such as insurance and building maintenance costs.

He said some part-time, parish support staff have been temporarily let go until in-person services can resume.

Some of those employees applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which provides $500 per week for up to 16 weeks during the crisis, Laflamme said. The diocese also intends to apply for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which covers up to 75 per cent of employee salaries.

Andreanne Jalbert-Laramee is a cultural heritage adviser at Quebec’s Religious Heritage Council, a non-profit organization that supports the conservation of historic buildings. In 2003, the group carried out an inventory of 2,751 historic churches built before 1975 that were still in use across the province.

She said while the exact impact of COVID-19 of Quebec’s churches remains to be seen, it will likely be considerable because several were already struggling before the pandemic

Many churches operate on shoestring budgets and rely on aging volunteers to keep running. “They were able to survive on limited means — but we have to say, it was a miracle,” Jalbert-Laramee said.

COVID-19 poses a challenge for houses of worship across Canada, but Jalbert-Laramee said churches in Quebec hold a special importance, both as landmarks in rural communities and for the role they played in health care and education over the decades.

But the Catholic Church’s place in the daily lives of Quebecers has been in decline for years. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, nearly 75 per cent of Quebecers identified as Catholic. But fewer than 1 in 10 said they often attended religious services — the lowest rate in Canada, according to a Leger poll conducted in May 2019.

Quebecers were also the least likely of all Canadians to say they “strongly agree” with the statement, “I believe in God,” the same poll found.

On Montreal’s South Shore, Paul De Leeuw says local parishes have seen a 30 per cent drop in overall revenue since their churches closed in mid-March in line with the COVID-19 shutdown.

De Leeuw, treasurer of the Diocese of St-Jean-de-Longueuil, which includes 45 parishes from Chateauguay to Contrecoeur, said the lack of Sunday collections has hit them hard.

Church leaders have also hesitated to ask for annual donations from regular congregants – the tithe – because many families are struggling financially right now. “It’s hard to ask for the tithe when there are people who lost their jobs,” he said.

The diocese had already sold 28 churches over the past 15 years due to a lack of funds, De Leeuw explained, and today more than half of its parishes cannot sustain their daily operations.

De Leeuw said he hoped the parishes would be able to make it out of the pandemic without suffering major economic losses. In the meantime, the diocese is using financial reserves to pay the salaries of priests and other staff and avoid layoffs.

He said that likely would cost more than $100,000 once Quebec’s COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

While stores outside Montreal were allowed to reopen last week, there has been no indication when religious services will be able to resume in Quebec.

“We don’t have a crystal ball,” De Leeuw said. “We want to be optimistic, but it’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be really difficult.”

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Temporary COVID-19 testing sites coming to Wetaskiwin and Ponoka

The Wetaskiwin location will open Oct. 23, 2020 and the Ponoka location will open Oct. 29.

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
City and County of Wetaskiwin reporting active cases

Both the City of Wetaskiwin and County of Wetaskiwin have active cases.

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the Covid-19 situation in Edmonton on Friday March 20, 2020. nbsp;Alberta is reporting it's highest daily number of COVID-19 cases, with 364 new infections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta confirmed 323 COVID-19 cases Tuesday

Central zone active cases at 145

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

The Canadian border is pictured at the Peace Arch Canada/USA border crossing in Surrey, B.C. Friday, March 20, 2020. More than 4.6 million people have arrived in Canada since the border closed last March and fewer than one-quarter of them were ordered to quarantine while the rest were deemed “essential” and exempted from quarantining. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Majority of international travellers since March deemed ‘essential’, avoid quarantine

As of Oct. 20, 3.5 million travellers had been deemed essential, and another 1.1 million were considered non-essential

This photo provided by Air Force Reserve shows a sky view of Hurricane Epsilon taken by Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter team over the Atlantic Ocean taken Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.   Epsilon’s maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly as it prepares to sideswipe Bermuda on a path over the Atlantic Ocean.  The National Hurricane Center says it should come close enough Thursday, Oct. 22, evening to merit a tropical storm warning for the island.  (Air Force Reserve via AP)
Hurricane Epsilon expected to remain offshore but will push waves at Atlantic Canada

Epsilon is not expected to have any real impact on land

A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Robert F. Bukaty
American voters living in Canada increasingly being counted in presidential race

The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California

A composite image of three photographs shows BC NDP Leader John Horgan, left, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Sept. 25, 2020; BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, centre, in Victoria on Sept. 24, 2020; and BC Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck, Chad Hipolito
British Columbia votes in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan called the snap election one year before the fixed voting date

Nunavut's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, on Tuesday June 30, 2020. The annual report from Nunavut's representative for children and youth says "complacency and a lack of accountability" in the territory's public service means basic information about young people needing services isn’t tracked. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Nunavut’s young people ‘should be expecting more’ from government services: advocate

‘The majority of information we requested is not tracked or was not provided by departments’

Ryen Williams, 11, with a lost miniature horse at JJ Collett Oct. 23. Photo by Don Williams
UPDATE: Owners found

Father and son found him while out for a walk at JJ Collett

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Most Read