Inside Ottawa’s Converted Churches: Heavenly Heights at Altitude Gym

More in this series: How Bluesfest preserved the legacy of a Westboro church. For the full series, pick up a copy of our autumn print issue—out now!

They are beautiful works of architecture — public gathering places with soaring ceilings and stained-glass windows designed to inspire, tell a story or, at the very least, amuse an unenthusiastic churchgoer during a long sermon. But what happens when the congregations leave? How do you honour a church’s illustrious history even as you give it a new, secular life?

These conversions are endeavours of both will and imagination, with visionary owners prepared to take a chance at rescuing old buildings in need of some serious TLC. But the rewards are also legion.

So what does it take to get started?

Generally, once a church is no longer used as a sacred space and the sacred objects have been removed, it is no longer considered consecrated. The priest or minister will usually preside over a closing worship ceremony that allows the congregation to celebrate its history and mourn its closing. If a church is considered to be a heritage property, new owners must get approval before altering the building but, on the plus side, may find they’re eligible for a heritage grant to help defray the costs of restoration.

It takes a certain braveness and vision to take on a church conversion, but the key players behind these bold projects attest that their resurrected spaces continue to fill their original purpose as welcoming houses designed to encourage people to congregate and share ideas.

Heavenly Highs: Altitude Gym’s Patrick Lamothe speaks about how his passion for climbing acquired new heights

After a six-month renovation, the gym opening in 2010. Photo by Marc Fowler

Boulevard Saint-Raymond, Gatineau
Built: 1944
Closed: December 27, 2009
Reopened as Altitude Gym: October 2010

Group therapy
“Altitude Gym is composed of 12 partners who have all known each other a long time. [We] tend to think of ourselves more as a large family than as business partners. Of our group, 10 are active members of the military, one is a police officer, and one is a firefighter.”

Paradise found

“The Clip ’n Climb system we use at Altitude Gym was developed in Christchurch, New Zealand. We discovered it back in ’07 when a group of us were teaching a mountaineering course there. Bad weather forced us to run three classes in a gym, which had this Clip ’n Climb setup. Right away, I loved the concept and believed in its potential.”

The kid-friendly Clip ‘N Climb is a top spot for birthday parties and school visits. Photo by Marc Fowler

Aiming high

“When we started thinking about the perfect building in which to set up a climbing gym, I definitely contemplated trying to find a church. It’s an interesting option because of the high ceilings. Within seconds of visiting Saint-Raymond-de-Pennefort, I fell in love with the place and envisioned its full potential. The main room was 30 feet high with a flat ceiling, and the site was large enough that we could also expand the building. [Eventually] we added The Annex onto the side of the original church. The addition provides us with 45 feet of vertical clearance, which allows climbers to train on longer routes.”

The Annex, an addition onto the side of the original church, provides 45 feet of vertical clearance for climbers to train on longer routes. Photo Marc Fowler

Mass farewell

“The church was still open when we purchased it, so the congregation knew that it was going to become a climbing gym. We were involved in the decommissioning process and final mass conducted by Archbishop Roger Ébacher. It was truly an amazing time, filled with emotion.”

Sense the power

“The great thing about the church is its atmosphere. It has a warmth that we would never have found in an industrial warehouse or a brand new steel structure. The site is more than a building — you can feel its history and sense the power of the community that passed through its doors over the years.”

The verdict

“From time to time, people will tell me about their memories of the church and how they see the gym. I really appreciate these stories because they allow me to visualize past events that occurred. One person told me about his time on the crew that assembled the steel structure when the church was built. Another couple once described to me how the church looked when they were married there. Overall, I believe parishioners are very happy that the site is still used in a way that benefits people.”