Cover

Stopping the Bleeding

Global trends and Anglo flight have decimated Quebec’s Anglican Church

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 29 1999
Cover

Stopping the Bleeding

Global trends and Anglo flight have decimated Quebec’s Anglican Church

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 29 1999

Stopping the Bleeding

Global trends and Anglo flight have decimated Quebec’s Anglican Church

Anthony Wilson-Smith

For those who like religion in sombre, silent doses, tiny Holy Trinity Anglican Church, in the Laurentian resort municipality of Ste-Agathe-des-Monts is not the place to go. On any Sunday, one-third of the usual 100 or so people in attendance are children—some are in the Sunday school classes downstairs, while others attend the service. Not all sit quiedy, but Rev. Mary Irwin-Gibson greets disruptions with a Irwin-Gibson patient smile. “You get families who come at Holy Trinity here because their kids get involved with acin Ste-Agathe: tivities, and then insist their parents join recruiting them in church,” says parishioner Karen youngfamilies Dorey, a mother of four girls who now runs the Sunday school. Since Irwin-Gibson took over the parish in 1991 and started recruiting young families, attendance in the 144-seat church is up by more than 25 per cent, while the average age of parishioners has fallen dramatically. “In a true house of God,” says Irwin-Gibson, “everyone feels welcome.”

Sadly for the dwindling flock of Anglican churchgoers in Quebec, Holy Trinity’s success is the exception, not the norm. Since the onset of the Quiet Revolution in I960, when many Quebecers started turning away from the church, all religions have been hard hit. Roman Catholics still dominate: in the 1991 census—the most recent to list religion—5.8 million of 6.8 million residents said they were Catholic, while 96,000 called themselves Anglican. But those figures do not reflect the severity of the loss suffered by the Anglican Church as a result of the anglophone exodus from Quebec over decades. In 1960, there were 100,000 Anglican parishioners in Montreal alone; now there are 24,000. In the other, mosdy rural diocese, the Bishop of Quebec, the Right Rev. Bruce Stavert, says the number of Anglicans spread over the 725,000-squarekilometre area he oversees has fallen from 20,000 to 8,500.

The exodus has slowed in recent years, and some losses are countered by Anglican immigrants. But the Bishop of Montreal, the Right Rev. Andrew Hutchison, says he has closed more than half a dozen churches over the past decade because they no longer had enough parishioners. The same is true across Quebec. “For at least a decade,” Bishop Stavert

says, “we have closed at least a church a year.” Even in places where pews are relatively well filled, many parishioners, says 61-year-old Bishop Hutchison, “are my age or older.” Those sparse congregations and aged faces are found against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful, historic churches in Canada—a reminder of the wealth Montreal’s then-largely Anglican anglophone elite exercised at the turn of the century. In one downtown stretch, three large churches—St. James the Apostle, St. George’s and Christ Church Cathedral—are far from full most Sundays, but endowments from wealthy churchgoers decades ago still provide a substantial amount of their needed revenue.

Away from Montreal, such salvation is not always possible. In the Gaspé region 780 km east of Montreal, Archdeacon Hugh Matheson oversees about 1,000 people in six churches year-round and in two that open only in summer. He holds services in two churches each Sunday, relying on a volunteer deacon to serve the others. But 18 months ago, he closed the 250-seat, 127-year-old St. James’ Church in the community of Cape Cove. Says Rev. Matheson: “There’s not a soul left who speaks English, or is interested in an English church.” The decline of the traditional Anglican base has prompted church officials to seek converts from other cultures. Many Anglican churches offer services in French to attract immigrant populations, such as Haitians. One of the few churches with a growing congregation in Bishop Stavert’s diocese is in northern Quebec, where parishioners are from the Naskapi band. Those successes and some historical perspective have Anglican officials talking optimistically. “We’ve had shocks in recent decades,” says Bishop Hutchison, “but the church has seen worse over 2,000 years, and survived.” For a true believer, there is always a better future ahead. EDI