They contain a treasure trove of religious art and artifacts but Venice’s churches are closing down because of dwindling congregations.
The decline in the number of faithful turning up for church services reflects the drop in the World Heritage city’s population – from around 175,000 after the Second World War to just 55,000 today.
On Le Vignole, a sparsely-populated island in the lagoon, the parish priest of Santa Maria Assunta church recently put up a poignant sign which read: “Mass is cancelled because of a lack of parishioners,” adding that he was available “on request” if a large enough congregation could be mustered.
“At the moment I manage to hold Mass once a month,” said Father Mario Sgorlon. “Nobody turns up in the winter, because it is cold and damp and everyone stays at home. One time there were just three of us.”
With the prospect of dozens of churches having to close, Catholic authorities are considering allowing them to be turned into art galleries, museums and libraries. “There are around 100 churches in Venice, which is more than the liturgical community now needs,” said Francesco Moraglia, the Patriarch or archbishop of Venice.
There was an “undeniable demographic trend” which meant that Venice had too few people to fill its church pews on a regular basis. Underused churches could be converted into exhibition centres for sculpture and art, concert venues and welfare centres, the head of the Venice diocese said.
The Church is looking to convert to other uses around 10 churches where Mass is no longer celebrated.
With State funds in short supply, the diocese is hoping to obtain public financing for the project.
In the face of ageing congregations and growing secularism, some priests remain defiant, however. “As long as I have a single parishioner, I will celebrate Mass,” Monsignor Ettore Fornezza, the parish priest on the tiny island of Torcello, told Corriere della Sera newspaper.