Burin Peninsula Catholics were already unsettled over insolvency. Now they’re losing their priest

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

May 11, 2022

By Terry Roberts

Father Nelson Boren is considering the pizza business as he struggles with health and financial problems

Roman Catholics in a rural area of southern Newfoundland have for months felt stress — and anger — over the uncertain fate of their church buildings and other properties, and the very future of their faith communities.

Now, parishioners in the area of St. Lawrence, a town on the island’s Burin Peninsula, face a new and unsettling reality: they’re losing their outspoken priest, Father Nelson Boren, with little hope of a replacement.

“We’ve dealt with lots of adversity over the years like any parish has,” said Jim Etchegary, administrative assistant at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in St. Lawrence.

“But this right now threatens to close our parish down, or at least decimate it to point where we’re just a shadow of what we always were.”

As Boren, 46, prepares to say goodbye, he’s speaking out — against the wishes of his superiors — and expressing frustration at the state of affairs in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s as it deals with insolvency and massive liabilities from a sexual abuse scandal at the Mount Cashel Orphanage. 

After more than six years as a priest on the southern tip of the Burin Peninsula, Boren has announced he is taking an indefinite leave of absence at end of this month and taking off his clerical collar. 

His plan?

To partner with other members of the Filipino community and establish a pizza franchise in the St. John’s area so he can earn more money and look after his ailing back.

“I am just leaving my active ministry to focus on my health to work out of my back pain and do the work as well,” said Boren.

‘Parishioners did not commit the sexual abuse’

Clergy members, including Archbishop Peter Hundt, have largely steered clear of the media spotlight since the archdiocese announced late last year it was granted court protection from its creditors in order to sell off churches and other properties.

The money raised from the sales will be used to help pay millions in claims from victims of abuse perpetrated by Christian Brothers at the former Mount Cashel orphanage in St. John’s.

But Boren has not been shy about expressing his views.

In March, he wrote a letter to The Telegram newspaper in which he questioned the merits of selling off church assets.

Boren wrote that victims deserve to be compensated, but said “to use the assets of the parishes that the parishioners themselves helped to put together must not be used to pay the victims. The parishioners did not commit the sexual abuse; others perpetrated this, not them.”

Recently, Boren once again broke ranks by agreeing to an interview with CBC News, saying he felt a moral obligation to share his story, and be a voice for the Catholics who have been expressing their concerns to him.

“People don’t understand why are they paying back the sins of people who helped commit the sexual abuse cases in the past,” he said during a wide-ranging interview at St. Thomas Aquinas church.

“Parishioners are hurt and they say they are also victims of another form of abuse.”

Back pain and a financial struggle

Boren, who began preparing for the priesthood in 1994, came to Canada a decade ago and was ordained at the Basilica of St. John The Baptist in St. John’s in 2015.

So why is he making such a life-changing decision?

First, he said ministering to five churches along a 50-kilometre stretch of rough road between St. Lawrence and Point May has taken a toll on his back.

But also looming large in his decision is the ongoing upheaval in the archdiocese, and the effects it has had on his financial situation, and his ability to support his family in the Philippines.

Boren said his money situation is so dire that “I cannot even go home if there’s an emergency right now,” and he’s unwilling to ask the parish for a raise because it’s already struggling to pay the bills.

As part of the ongoing restructuring, said Boren, his monthly income has dropped by roughly $300. That’s because a host of expenses previously paid by the parish, such as heat and light for the priest’s residence, are now included as taxable benefits on his income.

Boren said these changes were dictated by the trustee overseeing the insolvency process, without any input from priests, and he’s not happy about the process.

“The impact of that is priests are losing are a part of their salary because of the high income and then their net pay is reduced. So it’s a huge amount,” Boren said.

Shrinking, aging congregations

Meanwhile, as Boren prepares for a dramatically new chapter in his life, the church congregations he leaves behind wonder how they will deal with the immense challenges ahead.

The court-supervised liquidation process has so far focused on major properties in the St. John’s area, with prospective buyers having until early June to submit bids.

In some cases, special committees at the parish level have been formed to raise money in hopes of presenting a competitive bid on their own churches, knowing they may be outbid by someone with deeper pockets with other plans for these places of worship.

Future phases of the tender process will include church properties on the Burin Peninsula, and many are struggling to understand how it ever got to this point, especially since the first sex scandals involving priests and Christian Brothers erupted in the late 1980s. 

The church should have settled long ago with the victims, they say, and the fight to delay the inevitable has left many feeling angry at the church leadership.

“It’s shaken my faith from the point of view of the inaction that happened years ago,” said Sarah Slaney, a churchgoer at St. Thomas Aquinas.

“We always feel great empathy for the victims of abuse, and it’s gone on too long.” 

Meanwhile, even before a court ruled that the archdiocese was vicariously liable for the abuse at Mount Cashel, churches were struggling with shrinking and aging congregations, and an exodus of the faithful driven by various abuse scandals, including convictions of priests. 

At St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Lawrence, for example, the current church opened in 1967 with seating for up to 400 parishioners. Nowadays, a weekend service attracts about 50 people, in a community of some 900 registered Catholics.

It’s similarly bleak at even smaller churches in Lawn, Lord’s Cove, Lamaline and Point May.

Closures, consolidation a reality

It’s hard for those so devoted to their church to envision a future in which it might close, and be converted into a warehouse or a bed and breakfast, but that’s the reality in St. Lawrence and other places.

Jim Etchegary and others envision a scenario where St. Thomas Aquinas is deconsecrated and sold, and the smaller parish hall is purchased from the trustee by the church community.

The parish hall will be cheaper to operate, can generate revenue by hosting community events, and can also accommodate church services, said Etchegary.

“To have the low people on the totem pole paying for the sins of the father, it’s not sitting well with anyone that I’ve spoken to. But I mean, this is the reality we’re facing and we have to deal with it as best we can and try to save what we can of our parish,” he said.

But members of the faith may have to get used to worshipping without the services of a priest.

“Archbishop Hundt has made it clear that he just doesn’t have another priest to send down here on a full-time basis right now. So that’s that’s just another wrinkle that we’re going to have to deal with,” said Etchegary.

Remember the victims, says archbishop

Hundt declined an interview request, but in a statement said, “we must remain mindful that the purpose of this process is to deliver on the compensation owed to victims of abuse at Mount Cashel.”

He acknowledged that the sale of churches has “significant implications” for the Catholic community, and that a restructuring strategy will evolve from the ongoing liquidation process.

“It is my sincere hope that the path ahead will bring healing for the victims, their loved ones, and the entire community of faith, and closure to a dark chapter in the history of our archdiocese,” Hundt’s statement said. 

But some Catholics are worried the church may never recover.

“I’m afraid that the Catholic church in Newfoundland is in the process of imploding,” said Patrick Lundrigan, 82, a lifelong Catholic living in Lord’s Cove.

“It’s going to explode on itself with what has happened.”