The diocese has put up about 20 buildings and properties for sale, including the bishop’s residence, shown here. Photo: Courtesy of The Northland
Facing financial distress, the diocese of Moosonee will ask its synod in June to decide whether the diocese can continue its operations or whether it should be dissolved so that other forms of ministry can be pursued.
Three choices will be presented when the 45th diocesan synod meets June 3 to 5 in Timmins, Ont.: “Stay-as-is” but launch a major fundraising campaign; dissolve the diocese completely and transfer parishes to surrounding dioceses with their consent; or adopt the “historic Moosonee option,” where the diocese will be composed mainly of indigenous congregations.
Moosonee’s diocesan executive council recommended these options when it prepared the diocesan budget for 2011 and had to dip into reserve funds for the third year in a row, said Bishop Tom Corston in an interview. “We were looking at a crisis situation,” said Bishop Corston, adding that, “we were not going to be able to continue with what funds are left in our reserves after two to three years.” The reserve funds are down to $300,000.
The council also noted that the grant the diocese receives from the Council of the North is about to be cut from $249,000 to $125,000 a year.
“It means that the diocesan structure is just unsustainable,” said the diocese’s executive archdeacon, Harry Huskins.
The diocese is in dire straits because parish giving has decreased progressively over the last decades due to demographic shifts, said Bishop Corston. “Many of our communities suffered an economic downturn in 2008 with the worldwide (economic meltdown). Much of the forest industry has shut down in the area. There’s no pulp and paper industry anymore…The rail industry has closed down,” he said. In his hometown of Chapleau, CP Rail once employed 1,200 men from the community, today only 100 remain, he added.
While mining development has picked up in Timmins, the church isn’t seeing any benefits because the industry now brings in its workers from other places who work in 10-day shifts and leave, said Bishop Corston.
Some congregations have opted to disband and worship in other congregations, and others now worship in community halls.
Bishop Corston said each of the diocese’s three deaneries–Cochrane, Kenogami and James Bay–have scheduled meetings prior to the synod, at which time the three proposals will be presented to them for discussion. “Our hope is by the time the delegates come to synod, nobody will say they didn’t know anything about what was happening,” he said.
If synod chooses the “stay-as-is” option, it will include a proviso that a major financial stewardship campaign be launched to raise a minimum of $400,00 within one year, and more money the succeeding years after that, said Bishop Corston.
Without a boost of major funds, “we will be facing financial bankruptcy within the next couple of years,” warned Bishop Corston.
Dissolving the diocese and transferring its 26 parishes to neighbouring dioceses cannot be done unilaterally. “Moosonee might want to transfer some parishes to another diocese, but that diocese has to grant consent,” said Archdeacon Huskins. Actual change in jurisdiction lies with the synod of the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario, after which the church’s General Synod will be asked to affirm the decision.
Huskins explained that the “historic Moosonee option” means the diocese would be composed mainly of indigenous congregations from the present St. James Bay deanery. Non-indigenous parishes could evolve into a structure similar to the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior (APCI), formerly the diocese of Cariboo.
Non-indigenous parishes are the ones struggling financially, said Archdeacon Huskins. They are located mostly along Highway 11–from Geraldtown to Timmins–former pulp and paper towns where people are just moving out and those staying are getting older. These are “increasingly impoverished communities” where the average income goes down each year, he added.
The area with the “most potential for flourishing” are the indigenous communities along the east shore of James Bay, where churches are supported by bands and councils. These communities have populations upwards of 6,000 and average Sunday attendance of 200 to 300 people, said Archdeacon Huskins.
Bishop Corston, who was elected bishop in July last year, said he feels “very sad” about the state of the diocese. “I grew up in this diocese…Moosonee has been one of the great missionary dioceses of the Canadian church. It’s gone through tremendous changes in its history,” he said. “It started in 1872 as an indigenous diocese through the Hudson’s Bay Company, and as industries moved into northern Ontario, northern Quebec, the church grew along with them.” He noted that when he was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s the diocese employed 60 full-time clergy, when he was ordained in 1975, it was cut in half, and today, there are about a dozen clergy spread throughout 350,000 square miles.
“We now have clergy that are driving 100 to 200 kilometres to take services and we pay them among the lowest stipends in the country… Our clergy can’t afford the gas, they’re going over their travel allotment and we can’t afford to pay them anymore,” he said. “I admire them tremendously for the sacrifices they make to continue the ministry up here, but we’re burning out some of our clergy.”
Low salaries and lack of funds has also discouraged applications for clergy positions in indigenous communities, where the needs for ministry are great. “Like a lot of our indigenous communities right across the north, we’re facing a huge, almost pandemic proportion in suicides among our young people. We still have to deal with many of our people who are struggling from the residential school debacle and dealing with a lot of anger,” said Bishop Corston.
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