Religious buildings across Canada are getting a new lease on life

Mary Anne Pastuck at McDougall United Church in Edmonton on May 5.Amber Fern / Amber Fern

Last month, McDougall United Church in downtown Edmonton was given new life – and new life for its property.

When in 2015 it was designated a heritage building for its architectural and cultural significance, the church avoided demolition, but in 2019 it struggled to raise the $15 million needed for a full restoration.

The congregation eventually adopted a plan to transform the building into a multi-faith space and community center, with a redevelopment plan that will also include living quarters. Due to the scope and scale of the proposed project, the church realized it would need to partner with other organizations. For a helping hand, they turned to the Trinity Centers Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in finding new ways to use faith-based spaces.

Trinity Centers works with more than a dozen churches across Canada to breathe new life into spaces originally designed for religious worship.

The model is crucial as more churches, hit by the punch of declining attendance in general and pandemic closures more specifically, look to new ways to use their properties, many of which are buildings. heritage in need of maintenance. .

Statistics Canada released data in October 2021 that showed the number of people who identified as having a religious affiliation fell to 68% in 2019 from 90% in 1985. More importantly, the proportion of people who said participating in a group religious activity at least once a month fell by nearly half, from 43% to 23% over the same period.

The National Trust for Canada, a charitable organization whose mandate is to take action to save historic places and space across the country, reported in 2020 that more than 9,000 of 27,000 religious buildings would close permanently by 2030 – unless they remain open to unorthodox solutions and unprecedented measures.

Organizations such as Trinity Centers can help them do this. The foundation works with churches to develop a plan that matches their goals, then recommends potential options. The charity’s executive director, the Reverend Graham Singh, an Anglican priest in Montreal and a graduate of the London School of Economics, said the aim was to find a solution that does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. people.

“These are complex transactions, requiring funding, new forms of governance, legal issues and code issues, to name a few,” he said.

“I think very often congregations find that they don’t have the technical skills or the group energy to be able to get it right.”

The Trinity Centers Foundation helped ministry personnel transform McDougall United Church, an Edmonton landmark, into a shared space between the United congregation and a local Muslim group.Amber Fern / Amber Fern

Trinity’s projects include a housing development in Calgary, the transformation of a church in Scarborough into a community center with the local Boys and Girls Club and, in Montreal, a project that transformed a large historic church into a circus hall and a community center.

McDougall United Church was built to accommodate 800 to 1,000 congregants, but their Sunday service attendance had fallen to less than 75. Falling attendance led to lower revenues. The church was already drawing on its reserves to cover its operating expenses when the pandemic hit.

“I think it was obvious from the first vision meeting that we don’t have the human resources on the ground to do all the work that needs to be done,” church pastor Mary Anne Pastuck said.

Trinity Centers worked with the church to obtain funds from the federal Investment Readiness Program to pay for a feasibility study on a redevelopment plan.

The possibility of a partnership with the Muslim Community Association, or MAC, emerged earlier this year. The relationship began when MAC rented worship space from McDougall during Ramadan, which allowed the two organizations to learn more about each other and potential opportunities to work together. Details of the arrangement have yet to be finalized.

McDougall United Church in Edmonton announces Ramadan services in April. The church and the Muslim Association of Canada describe the Ramadan services as the first step in a partnership that will see the McDougall transformed into a multi-faith space with the help of the Trinity Centers Foundation.Handout

The Trinity Centers Foundation, which was started by Reverend Singh, works with church communities willing to redirect and redeploy their denominational assets for social good.

Reverend Singh said he sees the current ownership crisis within the faith community as an opportunity, but one that requires not just bold leadership but specialized expertise. This is where his foundation comes in.

“The redeployment of religious property is one of the most complicated urban actions one can undertake and it is not for the faint-hearted,” Reverend Singh said.

There are also many other examples of churches looking for new ways to use their buildings and grounds. Downtown Vancouver’s First Baptist Church announced a deal with a local developer in 2015 to build a large tower behind the building.

The United Church of Canada recently launched Kindred Works, a development arm that seeks to build homes for 34,000 people on church property over the next 15 years.

In Chapleau, Ontario, the town’s heritage Anglican church was sold to a local resident and developer, who turned the building’s basement into a community center. The new owner rented the chapel to the congregation at a nominal rate. The remodeled building also features a restaurant, as well as meeting and workshop space.

When St. Andrews Church in Sydney, Nova Scotia was decommissioned in 2013, a group came together to form the Highland Arts Theatre, transforming the space into a center for arts and culture. Owned and operated by the Highland Arts Theater Foundation, “the HAT” has made a significant impact in the community and continues to win awards and accolades.

Muslims worship at McDougall United Church in Edmonton in April during Ramadan.Handout

Trinity Centers is currently working on a project in Sainte-Lucie-des-Laurentides in rural Quebec, where the diocese decommissioned the church in 2017. Not wanting to see the historic gathering space demolished, the city council purchased the property for $1, but left it untouched because they didn’t know what to do with it.

Newly elected to City Council on November 7, 2021, Mayor Francis Corbeil knew it was time to do something big and meaningful with the church, but recognized that the council team lacked the skills or the connections needed to do it herself. Mr. Corbeil says the partnership with TCF helped St. Lucie launch its church repurposing project.

“The main objective was to provide more services to people who live in the area,” said Mr. Corbeil in an interview, “and to make the downtown area of ​​the village more lively and dynamic.

The trajectory of this project has not been easy. Council and residents needed to be flexible and open to change as plans changed. But with Trinity’s help, they were able to come to a solution. The church now has a future as a community center for residents, which will include a market and an addition for new municipal offices.

Corbeil credits the technical support his team received from TCF to move the project forward, particularly when it came to applying for the funding grants needed to complete the renovations.

“The church is at the heart of the community and we need it to be more than a building,” said Mr. Corbeil.

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Jerry B. Hatch