Just another church? Utrecht to close its cathedral

An archdiocese closing its cathedral. An unheard of development, surely? Not so in Utrecht, and it really is a logical conclusion in a diocese which is merging parishes and selling excess property: when it may be expected from a rural parish somewhere along the German border, why not from the inner-city parish where the archbishop happens to live?

catharinakathedraal utrechtIt must be added that no decision to actually secularise and sell the cathedral of St. Catherine has yet been made. But the parish council has seemingly announced its plan to ask the archdiocese to allow the secularisation and sale of the ancient church, in order to solve the financial dire straits the parish, which encompasses all of the inner city of Utrecht, finds itself in. The final decision lies with the archbishop, Cardinal Willem Eijk, who usually agrees with such requests if the parish’s reasoning is sound. In this context, before anyone accuses the cardinal of willfully closing churches, even his own cathedral, it must be recalled that the archdiocese does not own her churches: the parish usually does, and they must finance the upkeep of sometimes ancient and monumental buildings in a time of decreasing church attendance and financial support from faithful.

Surely, the loss of its cathedral is a monumental event for a diocese, and it does not happen frequently or easily. In the case of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, it will have to find a new cathedral for the first time since 1853: St. Catherine’s was the only choice to become the cathedral of the newly-established archdiocese as it was the only Protestant church in Utrecht given over to the Catholics in 1842. The Protestants had used the current cathedral since 1636, and before that it had a secular use. It had in fact only been Catholic for only the first 20 years since its completion in 1560.

In other dioceses, the bishop’s seat has also been relocated to different churches in the past. A chronological overview:

  • 1559: The church of St. John the Evangelist becomes the cathedral of the newly established Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In Roermond, the church of the Holy Spirit is the new cathedral.
  • 1661: St, Christopher’s in Roermond becomes a cathedral for the first time.
  • 1801: Roermond is suppressed as a diocese, so St. Christopher’s ceases to be a cathedral.
  • 1853: In Haarlem, the church of St. Joseph becomes the cathedral of the newly-established diocese of Haarlem. In Breda, The church of St. Anthony of Padua becomes the new cathedral, and in Roermond, the bishop’s seat is again established in St. Christopher’s.
  • 1876: Breda’s cathedral of St. Anthony becomes a parish church again and the bishop’s seat moves to St. Barbara’s.
  • 1898: The cathedral of St. Bavo in Haarlem, still under construction, becomes the cathedral of the Diocese of Haarlem, the only current Dutch cathedral built as a cathedral.
  • 1956: The church of St. Martin in Groningen becomes the cathedral of the eponymous diocese. At the same time, in Rotterdam, the church of St. Ignace becomes that diocese’s cathedral and is renamed as Ss. Lawrence & Ignace.
  • 1967: Rotterdam’s church of St. Elisabeth becomes the cathedral of Ss. Lawrence and Elisabeth.
  • 1968: St. Michael’s becomes the new cathedral of Breda.
  • 1970: The cathedral of St. Martin of the Diocese of Groningen is secularised, and later demolished.
  • 1981: The church of St. Joseph in Groningen becomes the new cathedral of the diocese of the same name.
  • 2001: The seat of the bishop of Breda returns to St. Anthony of Padua, which resumes the title of cathedral after having lost it in 1876.

In the past centuries, there have been some changes in cathedrals in the Netherlands, with the Diocese of Breda taking the cake in number of switches: it has had three cathedrals – one of which twice – since 1853. Only in the southern dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Roermond there has been significant stability. The only direct comparison to the developing situation regarding the cathedral of Utrecht is what transpired in Groningen in the 1970’s: the cathedral of St. Martin was closed in 1970, but remained the official cathedral until 1981, when it was demolished after having been deemed unsuitably to be rebuilt into the new university library. For 11 years, the Diocese of Groningen had a cathedral it no longer used, before another church took over the mantle. If Utrecht’s cathedral is closed and eventually secularised and sold, it is to be hoped that a new cathedral is found rather quicker. The most likely candidate is the church of St. Augustine, also located in the inner city of Utrecht, and the only other church in use by the city parish.

In the meantime, the announcement, which has not yet appeared officially in online media, has been met with sadness and disappointment, and the accusation that finances are the only reason for closing the cathedral, while its historical and religious importance for Catholics in Utrecht and beyond, as well as for all inhabitants of the city where St. Willibrord first established his see in the late 7th century, is being ignored.

EDIT: Shortly after my posting this, the cooperating parishes of Utrecht published a statement on their website. In it, they state an annual deficit of more than 400.000 euros, with building maintenance costs as one of the major posts, as the main reason to want to close St. Catherine’s cathedral. The parish of San Salvator, which owns and uses both the cathedral and the church of St. Augustine, is not able to keep both churches open. The cathedral is substantially more expensive than St. Augustine’s, so the parish will, in due course, request that the archbishop relegate it to profane use, per CIC §1222. The parish has extended feelers to the Catharijneconvent museum, which owns the former convent buildings adjacent to the cathedral, as a possible future owner. Moving the function of cathedral to St. Augustine’s is a process which will involve the Holy See. The entire process is still in a preliminary phase and may take several more years to complete.

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