POLITICS

Quebec Anglican Church facing major challenges in light of fewer parishioners

02/01/2015 07:00 EST | Updated 04/03/2015 05:59 EDT
TROIS-RIVIERES, Que. - As Rev. Yves Samson speaks to his congregation in the Quebec town of Trois-Rivieres, two things stand out: the bilingualism of the sermon and the dearth of parishioners.

Samson holds nothing back when he says that, without radical change, the Anglican Diocese of Quebec could soon be extinct.

"If we want to keep going on (the old) track we will all die," Samson says in an interview after his French and English sermon to a room full of near-empty pews in the St. James Anglican Church.

The fact Samson, 49, preaches in both languages might not sound radical to many Canadians, but to the Anglican Church — the Church of England — it is.

Several Protestant churches across Quebec have closed rather than turn bilingual.

Samson's church is Anglican in name only. The 10 people who showed up to mass on a recent Sunday included Baptists, Presbyterians and Unitarians.

The reverend said becoming ecumenical and bilingual is "the new reality" for former anglophone Protestant churches outside the Montreal area.

The new reality reflects the fact that in most regions outside Montreal, Anglo-Quebecers, and much of their culture, are on the verge of disappearing.

The Anglican Diocese of Quebec includes three of the province's main cities —Trois-Rivieres, Sherbrooke and Quebec City.

People who speak English at home in both Trois-Rivieres and Quebec City make up about one per cent of the population. In the 1860s Quebec City used to be 40 per cent anglophone.

In Sherbrooke, less than five per cent of residents speak English at home. In the 1860s that number was almost 60 per cent.

In light of this new reality the Anglican Church's task is daunting: persuade francophone Quebecers to become more religious and then have them choose to worship in the Church of England, one of the main symbols of the British conquest.

But the church doesn't seem to have the choice.

The Anglican Diocese of Quebec produced a gloomy report in 2014 about the future of its parishes, which span an area larger than the size of France.

Almost half of its churches have fewer than 10 regular services a year and close to 80 per cent of its churches have a regular attendance of fewer than 25 people.

Forty-five per cent of its churches ran a deficit in 2012 and a stunning 64 per cent of congregations said last year that within five years they would be closed or be amalgamated with other churches.

"We see a grim portrait of our future in this diocese," the report concluded. "We need to act quickly on urgent and radical change in our ethos and structures."

Samson says he preaches in French and English in his two other parishes in Drummondville and Sorel, but doesn't know if most of the Anglican Church's congregations are willing to make the change.

But many parishioners in other Protestant churches in Quebec would rather close than introduce bilingual services.

That was the fate of the Anglican Church in the Grand-Mere district of Shawinigan, northeast of Montreal.

The final few anglophone parishioners decided they wanted to keep their services in English only.

"(The church) is no longer here today," Samson said.

The exodus of Anglophones in Quebec hasn't hurt just the Anglican Church, but also many other Protestant denominations.

Felix de Forest, 79, who now worships at St. James, said the Trois-Rivieres United Church tried some bilingual services but "that didn't go over too well."

"I was shocked by some of the reaction I got from some of the older (anglophone) parishioners," he said.

His United Church closed in 2006.

Samson said francophone Quebecers should seriously consider the Anglican Church because it represents what they are looking for: more participation of women and acceptance of divorced and gay people.

"I am a gay priest and I was ordained in the church and I never lied about it to anyone," he said.

When asked if he believes Anglophones will ever return to the outlying regions, Samson replies unequivocally: "No," shaking his head back and forth. "No."

Aglaja Wojcierchowski, 88, moved to Trois-Rivieres in the 1950s from Switzerland and raised five children in the city's anglophone community. She started worshipping at St. James when her United Church closed several years ago.

She is not hopeful about the future of the Protestant church or the eventual return of English-speakers to Quebec.

"(Anglophones) are dying out," she said. "That's the thing, there are no jobs, no jobs here (for English-speakers)."