Church buildings across Canada are coming to life

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

Last month, the McDougall United Church in downtown Edmonton received new life — and new life for its property.

The church avoided demolition when it was declared a World Heritage Site in 2015 for its architectural and cultural significance, but in 2019 it struggled to scrape together the $15 million needed for a full restoration.

The community eventually agreed on a plan to transform the building into a multi-faith space and community center, with a redevelopment plan that will also include apartments. Because of the scale and scope of the proposed project, the church recognized that it needed to work with other organizations. For help, they turned to the Trinity Centers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that specializes in finding new ways to use faith spaces.

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

The model is vital as more churches, hit by the double win of declining attendance in general and pandemic lockdowns in particular, are finding new ways to use their properties, many of which are listed buildings in need of maintenance.

Statistics Canada released data in October 2021 showing the number of people identifying as religious fell from 90 percent in 1985 to 68 percent in 2019. Even more critically, the proportion of people who reported attending a religious group at least once a month fell by almost half to 23 percent from 43 percent in the same period.

The National Trust for Canada, a nonprofit charged with leading efforts to save historic sites and lands across the country, reported in 2020 that more than 9,000 of 27,000 places of worship will be permanently closed by 2030 — unless they stay open to unorthodox solutions and unprecedented measures.

Organizations like Trinity Centers can help them with this. The foundation works with churches to create a plan that aligns with their goals, then recommends possible options. The charity’s executive director, 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 would bring the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.

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

“I think very often communities realize they don’t have the technical skills or the group energy left to do it right.”

The Trinity Centers Foundation has helped ministerial staff transform Edmonton’s landmark McDougall United Church into a shared space between the United congregation and a local Muslim group.Amber Bracken/Amber Bracken

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

McDougall United Church was built to accommodate 800 to 1,000 parishioners, but their Sunday service attendance had dwindled to fewer than 75. Declining visitor numbers meant lower income. The church was already drawing on reserves to cover operating costs when the pandemic broke out.

“I think it was clear right 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,” said church pastor Mary Anne Pastuck.

Trinity Centers worked with the church to obtain money from the federal investment readiness program to fund a feasibility study for a rehabilitation plan.

The possibility of a partnership with the Muslim Community Association (MAC) surfaced earlier this year. The relationship began when MAC rented a prayer room in McDougall during Ramadan, allowing both organizations to learn more about each other and the potential opportunities to work together. The details of the arrangement have yet to be determined.

Edmonton’s McDougall United Church is promoting Ramadan services in April. The Church and Muslim Association of Canada describe the Ramadan services as the first step in a partnership that will transform McDougall into a multi-faith space with help from the Trinity Centers Foundation.handouts

The Trinity Centers Foundation, established by Reverend Singh, works with church communities willing to repurpose and repurpose their religious properties for social purposes.

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

“Rezoning a faith property is one of the most complicated civic actions that can be undertaken and it is not for the faint of heart,” Rev. Singh said.

There were also many other examples of churches looking for new ways to use their buildings and land. The First Baptist Church in downtown Vancouver announced in 2015 a deal with a local developer to build a large tower behind the building.

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

In Chapleau, Ontario, the town’s historic Anglican Church was sold to a local resident and developer who converted the building’s basement into a community center. The new owner leased the chapel back to the community for a nominal price. The renovated building also has a restaurant as well as conference and workshop rooms.

When St Andrews Church in Sydney, NS, was decommissioned in 2013, a group came together to create the Highland Arts Theater and transform the space into a hub for arts and culture. Owned and operated by the Highland Arts Theater Foundation, The HAT has made a significant impact on the community and continues to win awards and accolades.

Muslims pray during Ramadan at McDougall United Church in Edmonton in April.handouts

Trinity Centers is currently working on a project in St. Lucie-des-Laurentides in rural Quebec, where the diocese shut down the church in 2017. Unwilling to see the demolition of the historic meeting space, the city council bought the property for $1, but left it untouched because they were unsure what to do with it.

Mayor Francis Corbeil, newly elected to the city council on November 7, 2021, knew it was time to do something meaningful and meaningful with the church, but realized the council team lacked the skills or connections needed to do this yourself. Mr Corbeil says the partnership with TCF St Lucie has helped get their church conversion project off the ground.

“The main focus has been to offer more services to the people who live in the area,” Mr. Corbeil said in an interview, “and to make the core of the downtown village feel more alive and dynamic.”

The path for this project was not a straight one. Council and residents had to be flexible and open to change as plans changed. But with the help of Trinity, they were able to come to a solution. The church now has a future as a community center for residents that will include a market and an annex for new community offices.

Mr. Corbeil appreciates the technical assistance his team received from TCF to move the project forward, particularly in applying for the funding needed to complete the renovation work.

“The church is the heart of the community and it must be more than just a building,” stressed Mr. Corbeil.

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