Pope Francis visits a Quebec rapidly shedding its Catholicism

QUEBEC CITY – For more than 140 years, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste church, its conical spire soaring high into the sky, has been an imposing presence here in the provincial capital.

It was a rallying point for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, an organization devoted to protecting the interests of Quebec’s French-speaking population. It has appeared in travel guides. In 1991, the church, with a facade designed to mirror that of Paris’s Sainte-Trinité church, was classified as a heritage building for its architectural and artistic value.

But today, amid growing secularization, poor Mass attendance, declining revenue and the climbing costs of maintaining centuries-old places of worship, its doors are closed. The church celebrated its last Mass in 2015. Its future is uncertain; officials are considering how the building might be repurposed.

The plight of Saint-Jean-Baptiste parallels the declining role of the church in Canada’s most Catholic province, where for centuries it dominated public and private life – and where steeples and spires still tower over small villages and urban centers – but which is now shedding the faith at a precipitous pace.

Pope Francis arrived in Quebec on Wednesday for the second leg of his “penitential pilgrimage,” where he drew criticism – again – for what critics say has been his insufficient apology for the church’s role in Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children.

For the bulk of the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families to be placed in boarding schools often hundreds of miles from their communities, where they were forbidden from speaking their native languages are practicing their cultural traditions, and in many cases were physically and sexually abused. Most of the schools were run by Catholic entities.

Francis on Monday apologized for the “evil committed by so many Christians” in the system, but not for the complicity of the Church as an institution.

The 85-year-old pontiff celebrated a Mass Thursday at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, a popular pilgrimage site outside Quebec City. Before it began, two people approached the pulpit and unfurled a banner calling on Francis to rescind the papal bulls from the 15th century that enshrined the Doctrine of Discovery, which were used as justification to colonize and convert Indigenous peoples in the new world.

The Quebec that he encountered has changed dramatically since Pope John Paul II visited in 1984. John Paul was serenaded by a 16-year-old Céline Dion at a packed Olympic Stadium in Montreal and celebrated Mass with some 350,000 people in what was then Canada’s largest religious gathering.

The share of Catholics aged 15 and older in Quebec fell from 87% in 1985 to 62% from 2017 to 2019, according to Statistics Canada. In 1985, more than half of those people who identified as Catholics participated in a religious activity at least once a month. From 2017 to 2019, that figure was 14%.

The proportion of people with a religious affiliation other than Catholic doubled, from 9% in 1985 to 18% from 2017 to 2019.

“We have passed from a situation when there was a sort of moral authority of Catholicism decades ago,” said Jean-François Roussel, a theology professor at the University of Montreal. “For a lot of Quebecers . . . Catholicism is not a part of their lives, not even a part of their family lives.”

In the two decades to 2020, the number of parishes in the province declined from 1,780 to 983, according to the government agency that manages Quebec’s library and archives.

Catholic baptisms and weddings have also plunged, researchers reported last year in the journal Secular Studies.

“We have been entering, for the last 10 years or so, into a strong phase of decline of a certain Catholicism in Quebec,” said University of Ottawa sociologist E. Martin Meunier, a co-author of the report. “If there is a collapse of Catholicism, it concerns first of all institutional Catholicism.”

Quebec has had a long, complex relationship with the faith.

For centuries, the Church had a stranglehold over public institutions in Quebec, including health care, education, and social services, before the province began to uncouple itself in favor of a more secular approach – the so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

The shift away from Catholicism has accelerated in recent decades.

The result is that more than 600 churches in Quebec have closed, many of them bulldozed or deconsecrated so that other uses can be found for the historic buildings.

In Sherbrooke, 100 miles east of Montreal, the former Ste-Thérèse church is now The OMG Restaurant, a “festive place” where cocktails are topped with cotton candy and “even the wisest will be tempted to listen to the devil that sleeps within them.”

(The O in OMG has devil horns. So do some of the hamburgers.)

In Montreal, where Mark Twain once observed “you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window,” places of worship have also been transformed into condominiums and community centers.

In 2014, the former Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours was reborn as the Théâtre Paradoxe, where this month, Justin Turnbull, who goes by the name “The Suicide Jesus,” beat Brian Pillman to become the first-ever Apex Championship Wrestling world champion.

Saint-Jean-Baptiste, meanwhile, is in limbo.

The first church on that site was built after a fire in 1845 and inaugurated in 1849. It was dedicated to John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who would become the patron saint of French Canadians. When it was destroyed by a fire in 1881, it was immediately rebuilt.

The priest who delivered the final homily in 2015 praised it as “a stone church, built with genius, with grandeur, with pride, which allows everyone – without distinction – to rub shoulders with beauty, silence, elevation, contemplation.”

The church is the property of the archdiocese, said David O’Brien, a spokesman for the local government. He said the city is analyzing how it might be repurposed.

Eva Dubuc-April waited at the Basilica of St. Anne-de-Beaupré on Thursday for Francis to celebrate Mass.

Dubuc-April, 31, said she had her children baptized and attends Mass periodically. But she feels strongly that the church needs to modernize by reconsidering its teachings on sexuality and the male-only priesthood.

She likes Francis personally and sees him as a reformer, but he has faced resistance from a conservative Vatican bureaucracy.

“In Quebec, people that practice Catholicism don’t agree with these old teachings,” she said. “If they don’t progress, there will be no one left.”