LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A bishop says that a pilgrimage center to Scotland’s national shrine for Our Lady of Lourdes is closing because it lacks the support of the local community.

Bishop Joseph Toal of Motherwell made his remarks after around 5,000 people signed an online petition protesting last week’s announcement that the Pilgrimage Center at the Carfin Lourdes Grotto would close at the end of September.

Toal said the diocese “must cut our coat according to our cloth,” and has been left with no choice, since the local church faces “a future of reduced numbers and modest incomes.”

The Carfin Pilgrimage Center was opened in 1996, and has a gift shop and café to serve visitors.

“The ultimate difficulty for the Center is that not enough people visit the Grotto,” he explained in a statement. “Far more pilgrims would be needed to maintain the present business and improve the facilities. It does not seem likely that more people will come to the Grotto, even though it is a beautiful oasis of prayer and tranquility.”

Although the Grotto hosts large numbers of people for feast days and special devotions, these events often happen in the evening when the pilgrimage center is closed. Financially, the center is dependent upon visitors in the daytime, especially organized parish pilgrimages.

Toal noted that only 20 of the parishes in the Motherwell diocese arranged a parish day at the Grotto over the last summer, saying this was “sadly indicative of the decline in numbers.”

“If the support is not there from the local community, it is unlikely that visitors from further afield will compensate for this,” the bishop said.

Toal pointed out that the closure of the center does not affect the parish of St. Francis Xavier, where the Grotto is located, and the parish’s Xavier Center will remain open and can offer hospitality to visitors during special events.

The bishop said the pilgrimage center was always expected to operate as a business and to generate enough income to cover its costs. It is run as a limited company with its own board of directors.

“It has not succeeded in doing this for many years and has instead, depended on loans from the Diocese, and support from the parish, to continue trading. It is a business that is not making money, shows no signs of doing so and costs the Diocese a substantial amount of money,” he said.

The diocese was also looking at significant additional expenditure to upgrade the facility in order to meet updated food and hygiene and health and safety regulations.

Toal noted that he has been discussing the viability of the Visitor’s Center with diocesan officials since he became Bishop of Motherwell five years ago.

“Throughout this time, I allowed it to continue to operate at a loss, as it has provided a welcome service for pilgrims to the grotto and employment for a number of staff. After commissioning a feasibility study earlier this year we decided that there was no justification for keeping a loss-making company trading indefinitely and the process should begin to inform the staff of the closure and to ensure they receive all that they are entitled to when being made redundant,” he said.

“I accept people may feel disappointed about this decision but they have to be aware that we are now a diocese of modest means, which can’t afford to ignore the reality of the limited resources we can invest in a business that is not financially viable,” the bishop said, explaining the diocese’s current income is just enough to cover its expenditure.

“We basically spend everything we take in, leaving us unable to save for the future,” he said.

In a letter to The Herald, a Scottish newspaper, a former Catholic school principal called on the rest of the Scottish Church to help keep the center open. Richard Lynas had helped raise funds for the opening of the center when he was working at Taylor High School.

The school was named for Monsignor Thomas Nimmo Taylor, the former pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church who established the Carfin Lourdes Grotto in 1922.

“I am not privy to the issues or the financial pressures that have presumably contributed to the sad decision,” Lynas wrote. “But whatever the pressure, it is to be hoped that the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and, indeed, Scotland’s Catholics in general will be willing to rally round and contribute to the saving of a facility of which they can be so justly proud.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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