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Saving Sacred Space

Finding creative ways to repurpose historic church buildings.

In Canada, historic church buildings are facing a dire future. With decreasing attendance and increasing upkeep costs, many congregations are making tough decisions regarding their continued use of these sacred spaces. 

Regular church attendance has been dropping nationwide. In July 2019, PEW Research Center released data stating that 24 percent of Canadians seldom and 25 percent of Canadians never go to church. This is double the reported number from 2013.

Despite the nationwide trend, church attendance is not dropping in all congregations. A recent case study published by Cardus, a Christian research organization in Ottawa, highlighted how two growing Ontario congregations are working to save historic church buildings.

Lakeside Church, located just outside Guelph, had experienced such growth that they needed to purchase a second building. Opting to buy a historic stone structure from Norfolk Street United Church in downtown Guelph, Lakeside – which is non-denominational – began holding worship services in the stone church and took over operating its existing social and community programs.

Royal City Church, also in Guelph, purchased a historic stone church building from Chalmers United Church. Their purpose was to expand their hospitality and meal-preparation ministry serving at-risk people. The historic building serves as home base for their Sunday ministries and meal program. Royal City is part of the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada.

In both cases, the stone building’s heritage status was protected by the city. Because the original congregations sold to other congregations, they were also able to maintain the building’s religious purpose. 

Community hubs
While these are two positive outcomes from a difficult situation, for many congregations it’s not always possible to sell a historic building to another congregation looking to expand. In many cases, congregations choose to sell to developers rather than abandon the church buildings and watch them fall into disrepair.

In Vancouver, a Romanesque Revival-style church built in 1909 was converted into a 38-suite residential complex. In 2016, a 19th-century church in Toronto’s Palmerston neighbourhood was converted into four high-end townhouses. And in Newfoundland, the historic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is being repurposed to become a brewery, beer garden, restaurant, hotel and spa.

There are many other instances throughout Canada and North America of historic church buildings becoming family homes, care facilities, Airbnb’s and even music halls.

The National Trust for Canada estimated that 9,000 religious spaces will be lost within the next 10 years, according to an article published by the CBC last March, whether through abandonment, demolition or by being sold and repurposed. This represents a loss for all Canadians, because in addition to being places of worship, churches and religious spaces provide vital community services and programs.

“They play a de facto community hub role, community service role,” said Robert Pajot, National Trust of Canada regeneration project lead, in the article.

Affordable space
In response to the recognition that congregations and communities are struggling to run and maintain historic church buildings, the National Trust for Canada and an interfaith charity called Faith & the Common Good are partnering to provide congregational training sessions. Their initiative, called Regeneration Works: Places of Faith, offers advisory and coaching services to help non-profit organizations maintain affordable spaces.

While there are organizations working to save and renew Canada’s historic places, there is also increasing pressure to tear down historic buildings to support gentrification in urban neighbourhoods. Understanding how to best care for and utilize existing space may alleviate some of the pressure and allow these cultural landmarks to continue serving their communities, as well as provide their congregations with places of worship.

In a country experiencing increasing secularization, it’s no wonder many congregations are faced with difficult decisions regarding where they meet. With all there is competing for our money and attention, and so many needy people in our communities, there may not be a right choice between repurposing church building use, creating community-centred initiatives or selling historic structures and moving somewhere new.

When we speak of “church,” we usually think of the physical structure where a group of believers gather for worship. The term in Scripture, however, most often means the people – Christ followers (see Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:27). The early Christians met in their homes. So as long as Christians continue living out Hebrews 10:25, meeting together and encouraging one another, there will still be sacred spaces in our country.

  • Robyn spends her days as a media and marketing manager at a national non-profit and her nights working as a freelance writer in Abbotsford, B.C.

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