Are you in my pew?


October 8, 1991

Basilica Cathedral Parish receipt for pew rent. Pew #28.

In the 1800’s because voluntary offerings in Sunday collections were unpredictable, pastors introduced pew rents to stabilize parish finances.  Originating in Germany, the pew rent system was common place in North America by the 1840’s. In the new churches it was used to secure a steady income from which the debt on new buildings could be paid.

Parishioners could literally “rent a pew”.  It was reserved for their use during one or all of the Sunday Masses and other devotions and events.  Typically in most churches a  brass plate  was inserted with  a card holder where the name of the family “renting” the pew  was inserted.

The pews were also in demand.  Every Sunday notices were read reminding parishioners if they had not paid their “pew rent” that they should pay immediately or forfeit the right to claim the pew!

The practice was so prevalent that for certain celebrations in St. John’s that the Archbishop of St. John’s had to make a special plea that the “pew holders”  in the Basilica Cathedral give up their pews for special occasions. For example when Pope Pius XI died in 1939, Archbishop Roche requested:

“Pew holders in the upper centre section are requested to give their pews on that day (February 19, 1939)  for the use of those who desire to attend the ceremony ….

The same notice would go to pew holders when the  Basilica Cathdral hosted sacred  concerts.  One such notice read:

“On Wednesday Evening next at 8:00 o’clock a Sacred Oratorio will be held in the Cathedral on the occasion of the opening of the new organ. A small charge will be made for admission – the proceeds to go towards the expenses of the Organ which will be over eight thousand dollars. Pew holders will please understand that they must not expect to claim their pews on that occasion as they will be occupied by ticket holders.”

In some diocese the practise was so prevalent that regulations ensured that a proportion of pews (at least one sixth) always remained free to insure that the poor would have a seat in the church. The seats of renters who had not arrived before a certain point in the celebration were also regarded as free for occupation by others.

The idea  of “pew rents”  was  for some a great source of scandal, it was inevitable that it was the poor  that were edged out to perch on benches and stools at the back or middle of the church.

To an outsider the effect of rented pews in church could be off-putting.  A vistor to a church in Monmouthshire, Wales wrote in 1882:

“I did go once  (to the church) but the people were all shut in, and the folk in the pews  looked at me as if I had got in without paying: so after walking up and down several times, like a man in a station trying to get a seat when the train is full, I went home.”

In most churches in Newfoundland the idea of “pew rents” was allowed to fade away quietly. In place of pew rents for a particular pew, in some churches, a general pew  collection or second collection was held every Sunday. In the Basilica Cathedral Parish this general offering was seen by some parishioners as a way to hold on to the pew that they saw as “their family pew.”  To this very day older parishioners continue to sit in what was “their family pew.”

The pew collection, previously the pew rent, was officially ended by a decision of the Basilica Cathedral Parish Council on October 8, 1991.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Archives of the R.C. Archdiocese see “The Pew Rent Receipt Books” these books  identify the particular pew that was assigned to a family.

Recommended Reading:The English Anglian practice of pew renting, 1800-1969. Bennett, John Charles (2011) Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham, England.