By Karla Kelly
FOR THE DIGBY COURIER
A parish that stood the test of time for over 175 years ceased to exist earlier this month when the doors to its church closed after a final mass.
The July 6 service marked the end of Holy Cross Parish, which was established in 1892 to serve as the center of the predominantly Catholic communities of Plympton, Gilbert’s Cove and area.
The first church was a chapel that was built in 1838. In 1890, a new church was completed that stood until destroyed by fire in 1938.
Rev. Henry Smolenaars, the parish’s last priest, said having to close the church was one of the hardest things he has had to do.
“It is very difficult for a priest to have a church in his parish close, especially when you know that the church building will end up being demolished,” said Rev. Smolenaars. “It breaks my heart to see this happen, but circumstances beyond our control made the decision to close inevitable.”
Smolenaars, who has served as parish priest for Digby, Plympton and Weymouth for two years, said the church was temporarily closed in 2013 with a Christmas Eve mass being held before the final service.
“As with all buildings, there is the matter of upkeep and repairs and there have been mold issues in the basement the last number of years,” he said. “Heating costs have been high, especially since we kept the steam heat on all winter up until this year when the system was drained.”
A dwindling number of parishioners over the past 10 years has made upkeep of the church difficult, he added.
“The economy has forced many to move from the area and the majority of the remaining congregation is aging,” said Smolenaars. “Last year alone, I had 50 funerals in the three parishes.”
Lifetime church members Joan Nelson, Louis Melanson and his son Larry Melanson, all of Gilbert’s Cove, agree with their priest on this matter.
“I grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s and Holy Cross was our world,” Nelson reminisced. “As teenagers, we’d gather in the church basement listening to the latest hits on the record player, play floor hockey and, in the summer, there were the baseball games in the field down behind the church.”
Nelson said everyone went to church, it was what you did on Sunday, and the church was full—but gradually during the 1990s, things began to change.
“Even before I retired and returned home in 2004, there was discussion over closing the church so it was not an overnight thing,” Nelson said. “We all hoped and prayed it would remain open, but with less than 30 supporters we accepted the inevitable and voted to close the church.
“In the end it was an emotional time, especially the final Christmas Eve Mass.”
Louis Melanson whose fondest memories were of serving mass in Plympton, Marshalltown, Doucetteville and Rossway churches, said Holy Cross has been a part of his life for nearly all of his 99 years.
“Church life was important to me and my family, said Melanson. “People pitched in to help and gave what they had, your life revolved around the church.”
Melanson said the annual church picnic was the highlight each year, and he remembers being amazed one year in the 1940s by how much money was raised.
“The church picnic was our major fundraiser and one particular year when I was looking after the tickets, I counted out $7,000 that had come in after the picnic. We counted it twice to be sure. That was amazing support for that time.”
Melanson said he was sad, but not surprised at the turn of events knowing the handful of supporters could not manage the high cost of maintenance.
The Gilbert’s Cove senior recalled clearly the 1938 fire that destroyed the church, outbuildings and the glebe house.
The loss was several times what was covered by insurance but nearly 1,000 people attended when the cornerstone was blessed a year later. Although it took 10 years to finish the structure, people pitched in to get the new church built.
Larry Melanson said the sale of the glebe house a number of years ago lessened the financial burden but the aging church building required a considerable amount of money for repairs.
“The congregation was mostly seniors with few middle-aged supporters and no youth to keep the parish active and alive,” said Melanson. “Families moved away, lifestyles changed from when I was a teen, and many who have stayed have gotten out of the habit of going to mass.”
Melanson noted the closure isn’t peculiar to the Roman Catholic church as other denominations in the area have also closed or amalgamated.
Nelson said that with Holy Cross closed, members are now attending services in Weymouth or Digby.
Rev. Smolenaars said the church building cannot be sold due to regulations regarding the well and the close proximity of the graveyard, so the building will be demolished.
“Religious furnishing such as statues and altars will be removed prior to demolition,” he said. “A prayer room at the corner of the cemetery will be built using material from the church—a place where people can be out of the elements when visiting the cemetery.”