Library Learnings: Church: more than meets the eye, part 5– Canada’s churches: “closed, sold, or repurposed”

Arising out of The Great Courses DVD set, The World’s Greatest Churches—which is available in SSUC’s Library—this fifth instalment in what is a multi-part essay, reports the fate of some churches as religion in Canada fades. 


Fading Faith

“Fading faith” is the title Fabian Balint assigned this photograph of his. It was a 2022 award-winning picture in the shot-from-a-drone category in the annual Siena International Photo Awards competition. It was “taken above the old village of Geamãna” in Romania, “where toxic waters and residues flooded the houses and other buildings,” Siena Awards explains. “One can see the old church tower surrounded by the ‘evil’ waters.”

An amateur photographer, Balint, who lives in the small city in Piatra Neamt, Romania, “enjoy[s] architecture and photography in my spare time,” he remarks. “I love recreating shapes and hardlines in my work,” and it shows in this stark image. Drones, incidentally, “have revolutionized photography: their rotor-driven quadcopter versatility gives access to unique perspectives and compositions,” a Google search makes plain, “that would have been impossible or far too expensive for the average photographer.”

The story behind the steeple: in order to exploit a huge copper deposit, Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, in 1977 forced the villagers—hundreds of families; maybe a  thousand, one source reckons—to leave their picturesque Sesii Valley to make way for the waste from the mining pit. It became a kind of catch-basin into which the contaminated, multi-coloured sludge could flow—the waters of the lake are highly toxic, laced with cyanide and other chemicals. As the lake grew, it engulfed what was once a beautiful village. Little remains…except for the lonely church spire that breaches the morass. 


“Nine-thousand religious spaces in Canada will be lost in the next decade, roughly a third of all faith-owned buildings in the country.”

It was with this disheartening tally, an estimate by a national charity that works to save old buildings, the National Trust of Canada, that, three-and-a-half years ago, CBC senior reporter Bonnie Allen commenced a piece—“From sacred to secular”—for the national broadcaster. The subhead in the print version declared, “Shrinking congregations and rising maintenance costs force old churches to be closed, sold, or repurposed”. 

“‘Neighbourhoods are going to to have multiple churches closing,’” Robert Pajot told her. He, the trust’s regeneration project leader, predicted, “‘It is going to hit everybody.’” Addressing this new reality, “it’s important to recognize how emotionally attached people are to their faith spaces,” Allen reports him as saying, “and that conversations about the future must be handled with sensitivity. A conversation, he suggests, every town and city in Canada should be having at this moment.” Remember, he made this recommendation in March, 2019. “‘It ends up being very gut-wrenching for the community,’ Pajot said of the realization that a church must be closed, or either reduced to rubble or revitalized as something other than a place of worship.” 

Consider what’s happened to just one denomination’s churches in a neighbouring province: SaskBooks, in unveiling a new book in its latest catalogue, tells how Lois Knudson Munholland’s Pulpits of the Past “recounts the stories of hundreds of closed Saskatchewan Lutheran churches.”


“People are finding community in new ways”

“'[T]he importance of religion in people’s lives has decreased.’” That, a single sentence, just part of one, is Jarod Dobson’s take on the state of religion in Canada nowadays, as revealed in the 2021 census, released toward the end of October. And he should know—Dobson is a senior analyst with StatCan’s diversity and socio-cultural statistics division. 

For his delve into these figures, Canadian Press reporter Paul Chiasson turned to him, and to Lori Beaman, Canada Research Chair in religious diversity and social change. From her, he learned that folks, still in need of community—something church always provided—now “come together around things that matter’” most to them, “’like homelessness, like food banks, like conservation, and so on. […] People are finding community in new ways.’”

Census facts and figures make clear that “Canadians are losing their religion at an unprecedented rate,” Chiasson concluded, “with more than a third of the country reporting no religion affliction….” Indeed, “the proportion of non-religious Canadians has more than doubled in the past 20 years—to 34.6%, up from 16.5% in 2001—[while] the share of the country who identify as Christian has shrunk. They made up 53.3% of the population in 2021, down from…77.1% in 2001.” Then too, “Those who are affiliated with a given religion aren’t necessarily practicing members of that faith, StatCan noted.”  


Already half-a-dozen years ago, Luc Noppen worried that “the future of church buildings used as places of Christian worship…is really what is problematic.” Professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, he leads a team working on a vast “churches plan” in various regions of Quebec. Conducting research since 1972 on religious architectural heritage, he organized an international conference, held in Montreal in 2005, that examined the future of churches; it laid the groundwork for the formation, in 2010, of the organization Future for Religious Heritage.

It is the “collapse of religious practices, and therefore a drastic drop in attendance at these monuments,” that has him affirm, “The future of churches inevitably involves the invention of new uses of these places, a matter utterly unimaginable 30 years ago. […] All through the Christian West, more and more churches are closed to worship, and recycling or converting to new uses has become commonplace.” Why, in Montreal alone, “at least 33 former churches have been transformed,” CBC News reported on October 18 under the headline, “What does the future hold for Montreal’s unused church buildings?”.

To hear Noppen tell it, “we have to question the means, and the very reasons of their survival as a heritage that fewer and fewer people would share.” In his essay for the FRH from half a dozen years ago, he recounts, “I regularly see a fair number of students who have never set foot in a church, for whom the ecclesial attributes and characteristic features of these monuments are unknown, or look bizarre. The typology of furnishings and objects intended for worship…and the meaning of Christian iconography have no resonance with these young people who have grown up outside the arcana of Christian culture, which we all shared not so long ago.” 

For his report for FRH, Noppen mentions—and includes after-the-fact photographs—several church buildings in his province that have been given “a new lease on life”: 

❈  In Sherbrooke, Vertige Escalade has converted the former Christ-Roi church into a sport facility, complete with a climbing wall.

❈  The soaring, tent-like Saint-Denys-du-Plateau church has become a branch of the municipal library in Sainte-Foy.

❈  Montreal’s Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours is now a theatre.

❈  A circus school occupies the former Saint-Esprit church—which, Noppen declares, “is today the most frequented church on Sundays in Quebec City.”


“No matter how small”

“We preach and preach that church is not the place, but the people; that you don’t ‘go to church,’ [because] you are the church,” Kurtis Vanderpool declares in his 2018 book, Giving Up Sunday [find it in the SSUC Library]But “our rhetoric about church being people is consistently undermined by our response when people don’t want to meet in that place.” Here the author recounts a sermon he heard delivered in which the preacher insisted, “’You need to go to church. You want to know why? Because you need to go to church.’” 

Vanderpool concluded otherwise: “If we do in fact agree with Jesus, then we have to accept the model of people meeting in homes, in coffee shops, in bars, or even backyard bar-b-ques, as a valid and potentially more effective form of church. After all, that is how it all started with the very first believers. If church really is about people, then let us go to them, and quit fighting tooth and nail to draw them to a worn-out place filled with [what may be, for some] too many memories of pain and condemnation.” 

He, a life coach who works with what he calls “deconstructing Christians,” contends, “As long as we continue to…preach and argue about people ‘coming to church,’ as long as we close down communities of believers when we can’t pay the rent anymore, then we will continue to communicate that buildings are more important than relationships. […] So, if we have a community of believers, no matter how small…[w]e have church.” 


In The Globe and Mail’s Alberta edition of May 21, 2022, Andrea Kennedy supposed that the National Trust had it right, and 9,000 of Canada’s 27,000 buildings owned by religious organizations will close permanently by 2030. “[U]nless,” she added, “they remain open to unorthodox solutions and unprecedented measures.” The sort Noppen heralded. Which is easier said than done.

“‘Redeploying a faith property is one of the most complicated urban actions that one can take, and it’s not for the faint of heart,’” Graham Singh told her. He’d know. An Anglican priest in Montreal, who’s also a graduate of the London School of Economics, Singh is the founder and executive director of Trinity Centres. This charitable foundation, in Kennedy’s words, “works with church communities that are ready to repurpose and redeploy their faith-based property for social good,” this in order to “come up with a solution that does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.” 

It is, she adds, “working with more than a dozen churches across Canada to breathe new life into spaces originally designed for religious worship.” One of them, which the reporter featured in her 32-column-inch story, is Edmonton’s historic and capacious McDougall United Church. There, “attendance for Sunday service had dwindled to fewer than 75,” which “meant lower revenues.” Now, with the help of Trinity Centres, the congregation “settled on a plan to turn the building into a multi-faith space and community hub, with a redevelopment plan that also will include housing.” 

See, “it’s not just beautiful, historic buildings that will be lost, but also the sense of community provided by worship spaces,” Bonnie Allen observed in her 2019 CBC report. Which explains why, she adds, “Many churches have been transformed from sacred to secular use as art galleries, concert halls, libraries, community centres, and even micro-breweries.” To construe the rescue of church buildings, she, too, turned to Graham Singh: “'[I]t’s a way,’” he told her, “‘for churches to revitalize and combat “loneliness and isolation” in the community.’” 

Surely, that is a rightful, wholehearted, and Christian church-like mission.  

Ken Fredrick

To be continued. The the 6th instalment in this essay about “Church” will be posted to the SSUC Library’s website [] on February 3rd, 2023. Based on a single book, We Shall Be Changed, it will encourage us to “think about where we go from here”. Come again!


An interlude

A heavenly chapel…”made of living trees” 

So, church buildings assume other identities, close altogether, are effaced. By now, you know that. But maybe not that, amidst this winnowing, one can grow a church. Literally. It’s what Barry Cox did. See image below.

“You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the TreeChurch in Ohaupo, New Zealand,” Slate magazine began its see-for-yourself 2015 article about this living, breathing building. “A heavenly 100-seat chapel set among a three-acre landscaped garden, the church boasts walls made of living trees….” The various trees, Atlas Obscura explains, “were delicately trained across an iron frame until they began to grow together to shape the gabled form of the church.”

It was in 2011 that Cox “decided that his backyard was missing an old stone church”—Slate again—“like the ones he had studied and admired on travels to Europe. So he determined to unite his passion for ecclesiastical architecture with his skills as a landscaper who specializes in replanting mature trees….” In 2020, Chris and Bev Gatenby—he’d worked with Cox for four years looking after the TreeChurch—purchased it. They have it that the creation “inspires feelings of peace, contemplation, joy, and solace.” 

A sidebar

All for one, and one for all

“I hope that we are ready and willing to be as transformed as this building.” 

It was with these words that T. Blaine Gregg concluded his sermon to those in attendance at Edmonton’s Spirit of Hope United Church last February 27th—Transfiguration Sunday. He and they had struggled through a disruptive, almost-year-long construction project that saw the building on Whyte Avenue made ready to house four United churches that amalgamated into one a few years ago. 

All four—Ritchie, Pleasantview, Knox-Metropolitan, Avonmore—struggled with “attendance and maintaining their buildings,” Chris Chacon, reporting for Global News, observed last June 19. “Something had to be done.”  And it was: “The final step of that [consolidation] was to renovate the building the congregation chose as its home,” which was Avonmore, more recently known as United on Whyte. 

“’The bygone era was really about bricks and mortar, and those big, outlandish facilities,’” Heather Wright declared in an August, 2018, interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM. Then interim minister of United on Whyte, she added, “’But this whole transition has been about wanting to reinvest their resources into a lasting, supportive ministry, rather than a big new building.’”

This coming together was in prospect for some while: “‘The truth of the matter is that the Christian faith is in decline in Canada, and all of those churches were experiencing decline in membership,’” Wright admitted. She added, speaking of the amalgamation, “‘[S]o that’s a no brainer. […] [S]omething had to change.’” The joining together was pictured—in the Edmonton Journal in October, 2016—as being “another sign of the challenges Edmonton religious institutions face….”

“‘Two of the four congregations’ buildings were sold,’” Heather Bramm, a member of the Spirit of Hope leadership team, told Chacon, “‘and, as a result, that formed a fund from which we could draw on’” for the renovations needed in the church building on Whyte to accommodate those who’d come from the other three congregations—these cost “roughly $3 million,” according to Global News.  

How grim had matters become? At Knox-Metropolitan, “the congregation shrunk to a few dozen,” CBC reported. Already half-a-dozen years ago, the Journal mentioned that “Pleasantview’s head count on a typical Sunday had dropped to 25 to 30 people.” 

So, the banding together was not so precipitous. But the fact that four congregations joined to become one, that is unusual, according to Pleasantview’s Pat Williams. She told the Journal that “four of the denomination’s congregations have never been combined in Canada before. […] ‘We’re burning a path, I guess, for the United Church.’”

The parishioners who’ve made it happen, this conjoining, “’are committed to change, and that’s not always a real common thing in the church,’” Wright observed in her CBC interview. “Worshippers are now back enjoying the changes,” Chacon affirmed in his piece for Global News, “which they say is bringing new life and excitement to this unified church.” 

This good news Gregg pointed up in his Transfiguration Sunday sermon: “Today, we mark the culmination of the thoughtful choice of four congregations to pool resources and dreams to embody a ‘spirit of hope’…. The final step is the physical transformation of this building. […] Transformation will only happen when people are willing to leave the past—and loyalty to it—in the past. […] [T]he vision behind the amalgamation…was to be something different. […] [T]he focus [now] has to be on the needs and hopes of the here and now—always with an eye and heart for what might be next.” 


What will the future demand? “Dynamic change”

“[T]his moment demands real [institutional] change if a large percentage of faith communities are to survive the next 20 years with spiritual vibrancy and ministry effectiveness.”

That, in a sentence, is the conclusion of what Faith Communities Today calls “the largest national survey of congregations ever conducted in the U.S.”: 15,278 religious communities from 80 different denominations and faith traditions responded to this study, which the organization undertook in 2020. FCT is a series of ongoing research and practical reports about congregational life, conducted by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership. This multi-faith group, which works in conjunction with Hartford Institute for Religion Research, includes members from over 25 different faith groups.

“Religious leaders must be willing to champion innovative visions and novel ways forward,” the overview affirms. “These adaptive leaders will have to sustain this energy and passion to communicate the necessity for change; strategize a path forward; rally congregational will; and then mediate conflictual moments that will inevitably arise.” Congregants, too, will need to be openminded: “[I]ncreasing numbers of faith communities” will need to “engage in this process of experimentation and reinvention.” Indeed, such “dynamic change” will require “a body of individuals willing to embrace new paths.”

“…The spiritual message of faith communities,” the study concludes, “can still be powerful and life-changing, but modalities by which this good news is delivered urgently need reformation. For the congregations who respond to this challenge,” the coming decades “could indeed look bright.”