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From concerts to theatre, church look for new ways to fill the pews

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MONTREAL - Sometimes it takes a punk rocker to pack a church.

In a part of Montreal better known for trendy bistros and sidewalk cafes than for religious devotion, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church — one of the city's oldest and most storied houses of worship — is taking a unique approach to the challenge of keeping its pews occupied.

Despite what Father Alain Mongeau describes as a strong and healthy membership, the Catholic church has opened its doors to more cultural activities and private enterprise in order to stay relevant and keep its stately, century-old building from crumbling.

Top musical acts like Patti Smith, David Byrne, and Death Cab for Cutie have played in the church, which is known for excellent acoustics.

Mongeau said the church has enjoyed increased attendance among immigrants from France and a popular university student group. But he's also made a conscious effort to reach out beyond the religious faithful to the population at large.

The church has staged more concerts, opened a daycare and rented out part of the basement to two companies in order to help pay the bills.

"It's a special church because it not only has a spiritual and community component, but also a cultural one," Mongeau said of the church, which ranks in size only behind the Notre-Dame Basilica and Saint Joseph's Oratory.

"The cultural aspect has always been here, we are just remaking it."

Roman Catholics remain the single largest Christian religious group in Canada, according to the first set of numbers released Wednesday from Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey, the voluntary replacement for the cancelled mandatory long-form census.

The survey found that Canada is home to some 12,728,900 Roman Catholics, representing 38.7 per cent of the country's population as a whole. Statistics Canada warns, however, that the new survey's voluntary nature means that its results are more vulnerable to "non-response error" than previous mandatory surveys.

Interestingly, when Statistics Canada last posed religion questions during the 2001 census, it counted "just under 12.8 million" Roman Catholics — suggesting that the growth of Catholicism in Canada may indeed have flatlined.

Mongeau's church is not the only one trying to adapt.

Earlier this year, when Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet was considered a contender to become pope, the world's attention was briefly trained on his tiny Abitibi hometown of La Motte, where the church has been turned into a community centre and only occasionally hosts mass.

Quebec offers a dramatic illustration of a trend visible across Canada, where some 7.8 million people declared themselves as having no religious affiliation, the 2011 survey found.

In Quebec, religious attendance has been in steep decline since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when the Catholic Church lost much of its power over education, health care and social services.

A new generation of Quebecers is moving even further from the Catholic Church, doing away with many of the Catholic rituals that mark a life, said E.-Martin Meunier, a sociology professor at the University of Ottawa.

"They aren't necessarily baptizing their children or getting married," said Meunier, pointing to a series of scandals involving Quebec's Catholic Church as one of the reasons behind the continued decline.

Outside of Quebec, a strong influx of Catholic immigrants — particularly from Europe and Latin America — has helped offset any decline, Meunier said.

At the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church, it's not uncommon to see a long line of people waiting to gain entry — though not necessarily to attend mass.

The historic building, located in the city's largely secular Plateau neighbourhood, was brimming with activity one recent Sunday, long after the morning mass had ended.

In the span of a single afternoon, the nearly 100-year-old church — which covers an entire city block — played host to a theatre performance, a piano concert and a designer clothing sale.

"To see 2,000 people here is really something," said Maurice Du Berger, 26, who was hired by the church to promote and organize cultural events. "For us the pleasure is to make this available."

The church houses a non-denominational daycare and offers meals and other services for those on low incomes. Du Berger works with a marketing company that rents out an office in the church basement.

The brightly painted office walls and open concept workspace seem a world apart from the ornate chandeliers, stained glass, and pulpit a floor above. And while part of Du Berger's job is to keep the pews filled, not even he goes to church.

"I'm just happy that people are still using this place. In the past, churches were used for everything," he said. "We can return to the same thing, but in a modern way."

Mongeau said the building is in no danger of being converted to condominiums any time soon, a fate that has already befallen many other churches in Quebec. Instead, he insisted, the fight to keep it serving its community will go on.

"This church was built by people in this community," Mongeau said.

"Today, for all sorts of reasons, there is spiritual questioning... but it's still a meeting place, a place of life."

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