Homes

Inside Ottawa’s Converted Churches: Church Livin’

More in this series: Heavenly heights reached with Altitude Gym’s church renovation and 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.

Dominic Manzo speaks about renovating a former church into a personal “castle”

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Morewood United Church is now the home of Dominic Manzo. Photo by Luther Caverly

Morewood United Church
Morewood, Ontario
Built: 1926
Last Service: June 23, 2013

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“It’s nice to be a part of something with such a long history,” says Manzo. Photo by Luther Caverly


Divine dwelling
“My friend owns a church-house in Chesterville, and I spent a lot of time helping him when he was renovating it. When Morewood United came up for sale, he saw it and told me I’d better buy it. I paid $150,000 for this place. I’ll never get to live in a house like this again.”

Neighbourhood watch

“When the church closed in 2013, there were only about 20 people attending services regularly. I discussed the renovation with them and they told me to ‘follow the building.’ That’s what I have been doing — adding bedrooms on the main floor but without encroaching on the main room. When people see my car parked out front, they’ll stop in to take a look and see how things are going.”

Better than Netflix

“I’m doing most of the work myself. I’m lucky that I have a circle of good friends … and we get together and help each other out whenever we have time. We could sit around watching TV, but this is more fun.”

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Manzo says he’s already had a couple of parties in the open kitchen, situated where the altar used to be. Photo by Luther Caverly

Lots of surprises

“I expected things to happen more quickly, but there are lots of surprises in old buildings. I had to redo the septic and water systems and bring the electrical up to code. It’s hard to finance a project like this because no bank wants to give you a mortgage for the renovation of an old church.”

Scuff marks

“You can still see all the marks on the floor where the pews stood, as well as scuff marks in certain spots where someone with high heels obviously swung their feet back and forth during services. I love those marks! When I re-sand and stain the floors, I plan to stain these areas a bit darker so you can still see the history.”

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At the back of the church, which was filled with rows of pews, Manzo plans to add a games room. Photo by Luther Caverly

Getting stuck

“I’m the general manager at Distinctive Bathrooms & Kitchens. One of the great things about that is that I can call suppliers whenever I get stuck with renovation questions. Plus, a friend at Distinctive helped me with the kitchen design. It’s a maple kitchen, and I had the moulding above the fridge custom-designed to fit with the look of the church.”

Rent-a-castle

“This is a 3,000-square-foot room, so I have lots of space to work with. I’ve got four rooms plus the master bedroom, which isn’t finished yet. I need renters to help pay the mortgage, so I put out an ad that said, ‘Live in a castle.’ That got me some quick responses!”