National Post – Natalie Bull: The urban consequences of vanishing churches     April 10, 2015

On Sunday, members of Ottawa’s largest downtown synagogue closed its doors for the last time, carrying holy Torah scrolls from their sacred ark to their new temporary location 10 kilometres away. After annual losses reportedly in the order of $200,000, Beth Shalom’s congregation sold their building to a developer for $15 million, and will soon see it demolished to make way for commercial space and residential condos.

The Beth Shalom congregation is just one of hundreds of faith groups grappling with big real-estate decisions these days, in the face of dwindling attendance and rising property costs. Canada’s towns, cities and rural areas are already facing an epidemic of uncertainty and change for churches, synagogues and other faith buildings, and it will only get bigger.

Managing more than 27,000 properties, faith groups are the second largest real-estate holder in Canada after the government of Canada itself. Their real-estate assets include landmark places that anchor and shape our communities. Thousands have already been sold, converted to new uses, or demolished, and an estimated 9,000 more will be on the chopping block in the next few years.

This tsunami of sweeping change for faith groups and their buildings has serious implications on many levels: As vessels of history, heritage and collective memory, and as neighbourhood anchors, these buildings matter to many to more than just the faithful. What happens to them will affect planning and place-making on a massive scale.

There are big social consequences too: places of faith often meet an array of community needs beyond their spiritual mission, such as soup kitchens, shelters and low-cost space for non-profit partners. Case in point: Beth Shalom’s closure displaced no fewer than 18 local charities.

For downtown churches, the option to cash in on land value and development potential has its appeal, but turning a community asset into private property can be painful for parishioners and the broader community alike. At the other end of the spectrum, there are inspiring examples of congregations that have kept the doors open and found new sustainability through creative partnerships, generating new revenue and at the same time expanding their mission and impact.

St. John The Divine Anglican Church in Victoria uses its building to meet the needs of the inner city, providing shelter for homeless youths and older street folk, offering an emergency food supply, and providing meeting space to PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). It has been blessed in return, recently signing a 10-year lease with Pacific Opera Victoria, which will use St. John the Divine’s parish hall and invest in improving the facility.

Moncton’s Central United Church anchors the innovative Community Peace Centre, a project developed by a handful of not-for-profit organizations with a vision to serve downtown Moncton in a co-ordinated way from a downtown location. Sixteen non-profit agencies now call the complex home, collaborating together and promoting peaceful living. The church still hosts an hour-long service every Sunday and has newly renovated offices in the complex.

Even when the congregation chooses to move on, sale and redevelopment do not have to be a death knell for an historic building and its service to the community.  The 140-year-old Knox United Church in Owen Sound has been repurposed by a non-profit/charitable entity committed to making the space a community hub for arts education, performance and poverty alleviation.

While these urban examples may make it look easy, even urban neighbourhoods can absorb only so many square feet of cultural space or community space. And the reality is that often several large faith properties in the vicinity are already in need of a new vocation, with more sites hard on their heels. In rural areas, regenerating and reusing these places is even tougher because there is even less market demand for space.

Faith groups are in a period of intense transition, and their buildings are the canaries in the coal mine. Church leaders can be part of the solution, reaching out to their communities early on to explore options. Municipal governments, heritage organizations and community groups also need to be pro-active and resourceful, providing expertise in strategic and business planning, fundraising and real-estate development tailored to this special class of buildings.

It will take more than faith, hope and charity to weather the ecclesiastical real-estate crisis and protect places that matter.

National Post

Natalie Bull is Executive Director of Canada’s National Trust, a national charity that leads and inspires action to save historic places and regenerate communities.


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