Priestless Church Buildings

A proposal for the future of Ireland’s friary churches
Recent announcements regarding the closure of several Augustinian and Dominican friaries in Ireland have understandably been met with considerable pain – and in the case of the Dominican church in Drogheda, staunch resistance. Yet it would seem that these closures and prospective closures are merely a small taste of what is to come. The age profile of Ireland’s friars – across the spectrum of orders – means that it will be impossible for most of our much-loved friary churches in cities and towns across Ireland to remain functional in their present form for much longer. The imminent closure of most of these non-parish churches seems almost inevitable. What follows, however, is a three-part proposal that might enable some friary churches to continue to serve as centers of prayer and pastoral care.
First, it may be time for the laity associated with orders of friars and with specific churches to work with the communities of ageing friars to undertake more formal responsibility for ministry – with the understanding that in most places, the laity will assume full responsibility with the next two decades. Whether they are called third-orders, oblates, or associates, now is the time for lay Dominicans, lay Franciscans, lay Augustinians etc. to share formally in leadership and responsibility for friary churches. Some friaries could conceivably have lay ‘new monastic’ communities in residence – along the lines of the Jesuit Volunteer Communities or the project being undertaken by the Augustinians in Limerick but it seems more likely that a non-residential lay community is more realistic in most places – perhaps not unlike the Sant’ Egido Community. The lay members of the order would function somewhat like a Parish Pastoral Council with a more hands-on role, liaising with the provincial leadership of the order when there is no longer a resident community of friars. In some cases, this would be reminiscent of the lay, mendicant character of orders prior to their clericalization.
Second, when friary churches can no longer offer their current schedule of Masses – or Masses at all, it would seem a natural outgrowth of their heritage that they become centers for praying the Liturgy of the Hours led by lay presiders. This would mean offering morning and/or lunchtime and/or evening or night prayer as the need and as personnel allows. It could range from a few times a week to several times per day. The alternative of offering regularly scheduled communion services may blur the centrality of the Sunday Eucharist in the parish and causes concern among bishops.
Third, in order to serve the broader community and not to become purely self-serving pious clusters, the lay communities of the friary churches may need to offer a sustainable form of ministry, in continuity with apostolates of the friars. This could range from various social services, counseling, retreats, centering prayer, and the provision of space for non-profits organizations whose philosophy is consistent with that of the order. The ‘Nightfever’ experience already offered by some friaries such as Clarendon St. in Dublin may fill a need in the urban locations of the churches in question.
In short, Ireland’s friary churches need a cost-efficient plan that can be implemented by predominantly or entirely lay communities so as to continue to be oases of prayer and pastoral care in urban settings. While the characteristic genius of each order of friars and indeed of each specific house is crucial, these general proposals might be worth considering.
Alan McGill

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  1. In comparison, here in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada….most religious sister’s convents are sold and virtually all the religious priests are gone as well. Parishes are lead by Diocesan priests and deacons. Ireland is revealing a similar picture. Yes, hopefully, alternative purposes are found for the former religious houses, but, the situation speaks to a deeper and wider issue….the health of the Universal RC Church. The question I’m haunted with is: Is the RC Church Institution dying or living?

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well here in Cape Breton, we are an isolated island with a population of around 100K. Just recently we had a 13.5m class action lawsuit that has set the place ablaze with real estate sales, not to mention to homogenization of parishes. We will see close to 14 churches closing (remember we are only 100K).
    I am actively involved with the Stone Church Restoration Society – a group who has secured a Gothic inspired stone building that our local diocese was ready to demolish all but a year ago.
    My general idea for this specific location is to have it become one of the first solar farms in our area. The energy collected from the property could be sold back to the diocese in an effort to “carbon-neutralize” its other locations. This would be a huge undertaking and would require unrestricted amounts of fund-raising.
    My graphic, web, photography, video experience has been put to the test with them and as long as I keep interest, will continue.

  3. Peter Langan says:

    Preston, reputed to be the most Catholic place in England, is now over-supplied with churches,
    some being of considerable architectural merit. Bishop Campbell OSA has been
    able to keep two of these churches open by giving them over to the Institute of Christ the
    King Sovereign Priest and to Catholics of the Syro-Malabar rite. It is unlikely that the local
    conditions which triggered these solutions (a sufficiently extensive demand for EF liturgies
    in one instance, and the presence of several hundred Syro-Malabars in the other) would obtain
    in an Irish city of comparable size. But this does show what can be done where someone,
    in these cases the Bishop, is prepared to think ‘outside the box.’
    Norwich and York are cities blessed with many, often quite small, mediaeval churches. In both
    places the Anglican diocese has had considerable success in finding appropriate secular uses for
    buildings which are pastorally redundant.

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