Altared: Renovating the House of God
People & Places

Altared: Renovating the House of God

Believe or not,
the Halo Effect means we’re all impacted by aging churches

On a glorious Sunday morning this past spring, Rev. James Murray read to his congregation at Ottawa’s venerable Dominion-Chalmers United Church the story of the centurion who begged Jesus to cure his ill servant. When Jesus approached the centurion’s house, the Roman soldier said that his home wasn’t worthy of Jesus’s presence but that if he only said the word, the servant would be made well. “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel,” Jesus said to the crowd following him. The servant, of course, was cured.

That gospel story about the power of faith had special meaning for the 60 or so congregants gathered in Dominion-Chalmers’ hushed century-old sanctuary that Sunday. Like many Christian houses of worship across the country, the church at the corner of Cooper and O’Connor is facing a shrinking congregation, sliding revenues, and the mounting operational costs common to old, large buildings. For example, while Dominion-Chalmers’ pews hold about 950 people, attendance at Sunday service is typically around 80, and the average age of active congregants is 77.

To continue worshipping in their current home, the members of Dominion-Chalmers must find substantial new revenue by 2019. Faith, perhaps the kind the centurion displayed, will be essential to keeping everyone motivated in that search.

Finding a solution to the church’s predicament is close to the heart of people like Daphne Picklyk. Now 80, she began attending Dominion-Chalmers in 1960. “It’s home,” she says. “We have our wrinkles, but I find people there very supportive. When you go to the same place for years, it becomes built into your way of life.”

But for a growing number of people, it’s no longer a part of life.

“The church is now but one option among many in how [people] choose to live their lives,” Murray exhorted that Sunday during his sermon on the challenges faced by mainstream churches in a secular era.

The conversation continued in a sombre post-service gathering when congregants were brought up to speed on their beloved church’s bleak financial state and the ongoing search for a solution.

At the core of their problem is an existential crisis of sorts; it’s a dilemma many congregations face and one that asks the essential question: why have Dominion-Chalmers and so many other churches — landmarks of faith, architecture, and community service — arrived on these calamitous shores? What do these institutions mean — not just to congregants but to the neighbourhoods around them and the cities where they reside? And what, if any, is the solution to the predicament facing these churches?

Not just for worship. Chamber Music Fest and the TD Jazz Festival annually host music events inside Dominion-Chalmers United Church. Photo: Hans Georg Fischer –

It’s Complicated

The fact that churches are in a financial quagmire is hardly surprising.

Religious affiliation in Canada has dropped sharply. For example, in 2001, Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey found that 16.3 percent of Canadians surveyed said they had no religious affiliation. By 2011, that had jumped to 23 percent, an increase of over 41 percent.

The United Church of Canada reports having closed an average of 55 churches across the country each year between 2004 and 2014. Moreover, in their church millennials have largely abandoned regular attendance, according to the Pew Research Center.

Elsewhere, the Church of England (Anglican Church) reported earlier this year that attendance at weekly services had plunged to the lowest level ever. In the United Church, millennials have largely abandoned regular church attendance, according to the Pew Research Center.

In Ottawa over the past decade, tumbling attendance has meant the cessation of worship at multiple long-established churches, including St. Matthias on Parkdale Avenue, Saint Brigid’s in Lowertown, and Saint-Charles off Beechwood Avenue. And Dominion-Chalmers, which attracted 1,700 people to its 1955 Easter services (it was then called Chalmers United Church), drew just 160 this year.

Surprisingly, 70 percent of Canadians surveyed by Angus Reid last year professed belief in a “Supreme Being.” The sprawling Archdiocese of Toronto has opened a new mega-church, with room for 1,000 people, every year since the turn of the new millennium. Closer to home, St. Joseph’s Parish & Sanctuary on Laurier Avenue is not only financially well off but boasts a staff of 21 and hundreds of volunteers. In other words, whether in Ottawa or elsewhere in the country, the status of mainstream Christian faith is complicated.

Westboro United Church closed in 2008. It reopened as Festival House in 2014. Photo: Doublespace Photography.

(To see inside this, and other churches, click here)

Why the Decline?

That there is an overall decline in mainstream church attendance is indisputable, according to religious scholar Joel Thiessen. Despite pockets of vitality, “the overarching narrative is not good news,” says Thiessen, who teaches sociology at Calgary’s Ambrose University College and is currently researching healthy congregations. He says exclusionary practices and beliefs — evidenced in the paucity of women in church leadership roles, for instance — help account for our abandonment of traditional religions. “The exclusive nature of some religions is seen as non-Canadian,” he notes.

Andrew Hurrell says that the death of congregations has been exaggerated, in part because the media have focused on negative rather than positive news. Hurrell, an Ottawa-based strategic planning consultant who advises churches, points to the influx of new immigrants who bring with them strong religious commitments as having given an important boost to mainstream religion in Canada.

Thiessen agrees, saying, “Christianity would decline far faster if not for immigration.” However, he’s less certain about that trend extending into future generations. He says beliefs tend to “regress to the mean,” which, in this case, are those of an increasingly secular society.

Hurrell believes that while churches have much to offer society — from sponsoring refugee support groups to giving a sense of a higher purpose and meaning to life — they have not done a good job of staying in the public conversation. When they have, “it’s for the wrong reasons, like pedophiles; that’s affected many people’s perceptions of religion.”

Having long ago lost its community-building role as a founder of schools and hospitals, mainstream religion has also lost some of its raison d’être, according to Hurrell. He says that what’s needed now are strong church leaders to “beat the drum,” to reach out to the surrounding community and re-establish that interrupted conversation.

Asked about society’s waning religiosity, Dominion-Chalmers’ Murray points to the distrust of authority, the aversion to institutions, and the celebration of individuality that the 1960s bequeathed. Those attitudes don’t accord well with religions that honour the voice of authority, the role of tradition, and the centrality of community. Besides, says Murray, “churches traditionally do best with a family ministry,” and downtown churches like his were built with that in mind. Now they’re surrounded by people living alone or as couples, many of whom are transient.

Other reasons for the decline abound — from kids’ Sunday-morning soccer practice and other such activities to the near disappearance of societal and family pressure to attend church.

The Halo Effect

Should we care about the decline of mainstream churches?

You bet.

As part of our built environment, they connect us with our broader selves, both past and present. Without churches, many would argue, we’d all be worse off.

As evidence, consider the halo effect. Coined by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the term refers to the measurable economic value that congregations bring to a city. That value ranges from counselling services to the dollars tumbling into local businesses from weddings and funerals.

Mike Wood Daly led a halo effect study of 10 Toronto congregations in 2015 to 2016. It found a cumulative estimated economic impact of approximately $45 million — that’s not exactly chump change.

“If the faith community ceased to exist, what would happen?” he asks, pointing to everything from community groups renting church space at below-market rates to the role of church-based services in helping prevent suicides and divorces — both of which exact high emotional and financial costs on those directly involved and the larger community. “If we’re able to convert [church benefits] into language that seculars understand, then that creates a language that identifies congregations as stakeholders” in the larger community, he explains.

It’s about more than just economics, of course.

Admaston-Bromley Mthodist Church in Douglas, Ont., closed as a church in the early 1970s. Valley musician and producer, Colin Wylie, took it over in 2007. It is now home to Old Church Recording studio. Photo: Miv Fournier

Community outreach services like the weekly Jericho Road coffee house at First Baptist Church on Laurier and Elgin offer food, music, and companionship to homeless and other marginalized people. “I enjoy it, meeting new people,” says Cecil, a regular attendee. “It keeps people out of trouble. If we didn’t have it, people would be bored — they’d have nothing to do.”

Major festivals such as Ottawa’s Music and Beyond, TD Jazz Fest, and Chamberfest also rent performance space in churches — in particular Dominion-Chalmers where, for years, Chamberfest has used the sanctuary and other areas of the building for dozens of concerts, youth programs, and other activities. “One reason artists come from all over the world is to play on that stage,” says the festival’s artistic director, Roman Borys. “The acoustics are fantastic … and [performers] feel really close to the audience.”

He says that music and churches have a special congruence in the human search for transcendence. “We’re looking for meaning, to get outside of ourselves in a communal way. Churches create spaces that allow for depth of experience.”

Natalie Bull, executive director of Canada’s National Trust, whose mandate includes saving historic places, points to older churches as not just possessing architectural value but also as being cultural repositories. In a National Post column last year, she described them as “vessels of history, heritage, and collective memory” that matter to more than just faith communities.

Closing and demolishing older churches affects community character and even community life, she says. The sense of place and social cohesion embedded in churches, the green oases around many of them, the community centres and human networks within — all that vanishes when churches are turned into condo towers or abandoned.

The pressures of shrinking congregations, rising maintenance costs, and an increasingly secular society are bound to intensify as developers eye valuable church properties as potential sites for shiny new condo or office towers. For example, Dominion-Chalmers’ location in a heritage district would make any alterations to the building itself difficult, but the parking lot, valued at $4 to $4.5 million, could possibly be sold. But that has its own negative ramifications, from a condo that might physically overshadow the church to a further decline in attendance when free congregational parking is lost. 

However, solutions for saving the sacred abound.

Morewood United Church in Morewood, Ont., closed as a church in 2013. It has since been bought and renovated by Dominic Manzo, who is turning it into his personal “castle.” Photo: Luther Caverly

Some churches remain as places of worship while integrating non-religious, revenue-generating programs. For example, Toronto’s Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church and Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts continues to hold Sunday services while playing landlord to resident organizations like the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir and hosting everything from classical concerts to salsa dancing.

Chamberfest’s Borys sees this as a possible model for Dominion-Chalmers, although he says changes like a larger foyer where guests could socialize and the opportunity to serve alcohol would make the concert-going experience more like those we’re used to at, for instance, the National Arts Centre. He says he is “very optimistic” that the church can be saved but knows that worsening finances mean “they are going to have to move fast.”

The church, which is actively exploring fresh revenue opportunities, shouldn’t count on municipal largesse. In an email, City of Ottawa treasurer Marian Simulik stated: “There are no programs or plans to help financially troubled churches. As you may be aware, places of worship do not pay property taxes, so that in itself helps towards keeping them financially sustainable.” The city does offer a matching grant of up to $5,000 for restoring heritage buildings.

Other churches, like Saint-Charles in Vanier and All Saints Anglican Church in Sandy Hill, have been deconsecrated for conversion to various uses. Plans at All Saints include multi-faith services as well as retail, office, and conference space.

St. Joseph’s Parish, which boasts a dynamic congregation and holds an extraordinary seven masses each week during the fall and winter, has helped bolster its future — and its attendance — through a cornucopia of youth and other community ministries. It also rents out some of its space. “You can’t rely on collection baskets,” says St. Joe’s executive director Christopher Adams.

First Baptist, meanwhile, has seen its weekly attendance creep up from about 60 in 2009, when it was considering closing down, to over 100, including a growing number of families and students.

“We’re not trying to meet every need in worship,” says Rev. Dr. Scott N. Kindred-Barnes. “We decided to do a traditional worship drawing on music and solid preaching that feeds the intellect … by interpreting current events through traditional teachings.”

Which route Dominion-Chalmers will take remains to be seen.

Saint-Raymond-de-Pennefort on Boulevard Saint Raymond in Gatineau closed as a church in 2009. Since then, it’s reopened as Altitude Gym. Photo: Marc Fowler, Metropolis Studio

It might, for example, negotiate a long-term agreement with one or more organizations for the rental of office or other space. However, while that would generate revenue, the church’s precarious financial situation makes long-term commitments difficult at the moment.

Thanks to the demise in 2008 of plans for a new concert hall in the city, the church could conceivably become a full-time concert hall if the congregation folded or joined another church.

Dominion-Chalmer’s attendee Picklyk is not enamoured with that possibility. “It would be very sad if the building itself doesn’t contribute to the Christian community and belief,” she says.

Whether or not the general public cares if the church contributes to the Christian faith is an open question. However, one suspects there would be public, corporate, and other support for maintaining Dominion-Chalmers if, like St. Joseph’s Parish and others, it expanded its role in meeting the city’s growing cultural and social needs.

A Conversation Worth Having

Seemingly adrift in a secular society, many older mainstream churches are struggling to find a function that resonates with the challenges faced by communities, especially urban ones.

Conversely, communities are struggling with how to achieve the foundational teachings of churches — love, kindness, hope — when religious affiliation is no longer part of many people’s lives. As well, communities are challenged by the continued presence of places of worship they no longer attend and that take up valuable real estate that could be put to other uses.

Solving this conundrum is no easy task, but at its core is a necessity for more conversation. Perhaps churches need to speak more clearly and society needs to listen more closely. 

Patrick Langston

Illustration: Sebastien Thibault
Illustration: Sebastien Thibault

In Conversation With…

This is short series of conversations with leaders from three Christian mainstream churches, in particular looking at the how specific churches in their care are managing not only to survive, but thrive. 

Rev. Dr. Anthony D. Bailey, Parkdale United Church

On the third Sunday of every January, Parkdale United Church is literally bursting with upwards of 600 people there to hear Bailey speak about Martin Luther King Jr. during a special service. Those numbers are not just representative of that particular Sunday either. Parkdale is one of Ottawa’s busiest, most active churches, and because of that, it’s also one of the best-known congregations in the city. While regular Sundays don’t bring out 600 people, attendance averages around 250 people — one-third of those being youth, a number that is practically unheard of in most mainstream Christian churches. That makes Parkdale somewhat of a mystery. Certainly the secret to its success lies with its 58-year-old likeable, hard-working, caring, and charismatic reverend, but as Bailey points out, Parkdale’s brick-and-stone walls have come to symbolize something to its congregation as well as the greater community.

What do you think Parkdale is doing that attracts regular attendees?

Remembering what our main focus is: the importance of helping people grow in their faith, which is lively, active, and an organic expression of something that is incorporated into their lives … and our commitment to outreach — it’s a question of how do we make a difference in our community and in the world.

What’s the relationship between the church and its surrounding community?

Our vision statement is to form followers of Jesus in such a way as to transform our community and our world. So, for instance, our signature outreach program is In From the Cold. It’s a supper hospitality ministry that takes place from November to March. … Guests who come have often said that this is the only time they experience dignity in their entire week. It requires 80 volunteers — the majority from the congregation, but it also brings out people from the community: those from nearby mosques, the Jewish synagogue, the colleges and universities, and from other churches.

What are some of the struggles with getting people to come on a Sunday?

Young families are a lot busier now. There are a lot of things competing for their attention: fundraising runs, sports, birthday parties. We say to people, [Sunday] is our main, traditional time of worship — you need to decide if this is a priority for you.

Where do you see your congregation 10 years from now? Are you realistically optimistic about the future?

The good news of Jesus Christ is always relevant. We have to find a way to embody that in ways that engage the present reality. We’ve asked ourselves, “What would happen if we redeveloped this site? … If we razed it and rebuilt it, how could the new building better address the needs of the community?”

The Ven. Christopher Dunn, Ottawa West Anglican Archdeacon, All Saints Westboro

If its bustling courtyard, adjacent to the main Richmond Road thoroughfare, is any indication, All Saints Westboro is thriving — er, “adapting” as Dunn puts it.

At this particular noon hour, the courtyard has youths sprawled out on its small patch of grass, an older couple shares a bench, and office employees mill about the bulletin board with coffees.

This confluence of various groups and generations is symbolic of how this church continues to survive and grow. Nine years ago, First United Church was struggling, as was All Saints Westboro. Since no other Anglican churches were ready to merge, the two churches took the unusual step of moving into the same building in Westboro. Almost a year ago, the same struggles caused Parkdale’s St. Matthias Anglican congregation to move.

Now three congregations from two mainstream churches worship under one roof (but at different times). Doing so has breathed new life into the more than 150-year-old building (designed by Thomas Fuller, Chief Dominion Architect for the Government of Canada), swelling the building’s numbers to 250 people on an average Sunday (including all services), with approximately 50 of those being youth. “Having that many people come into one place means that it’s always on the go … there’s more people around, you have critical mass, and the place hops,” says Dunn.

What are some of the struggles your congregation faces?

What we’re discovering is that we can’t do things the way we always did — we need to adapt. … We need to look at new ways of being church in the community. How do we do that with the resources we have, which includes the physical buildings and other resources? The question has to be asked, “Do we [the city] need 20 Anglican churches? Or could you do more with ministry centres?” [The merging of all three churches] has allowed us to pool our resources together and do more things. And because of that, we’ve grown.

What do churchgoers seek on any given Sunday?

They’re seeking some sense of peace and calm in the midst of busy lives. Some are here for a support network or to pray together. Churches are one of the few places where people sing together anymore. We’re finding that those people who are in the churches are more serious about why they’re there.

Where do you see your congregation in the future? Are you realistically optimistic?

All Saints Westboro will be here. There may not be as many Anglican churches, but we’re learning that providing ministry centres is important. There is still a search out there — even among the youth — for spirituality. If we can help people in that journey of discovery, that’s important. Hopefully by then the facility will have gone through its evolution and will be able to meet [future] demands.

Rev. Geoffrey Kerslake, Pastoral Services for Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa

Given how quiet most church buildings are during the week (even on Sundays sometimes) it may appear as though these aging edifices no longer have anything meaningful to say.

And yet these buildings continue to speak; they have a language and a message that yearns to be heard.

“In a well-designed church, there is a lesson in theology that’s not written down in words or spoken aloud but is instead conveyed by the wood, the stained glass, the architecture, the light, and the altar. It [the building] has a deeply theological message that can help to remind us what we’re doing and why we’re there,” says Kerslake.

Yes, he admits, churches are dispensable, and if they were lost — say, to a fire — the parish would remain. But he points out that a message would be lost. “The architecture of the building … is carefully crafted to orient us out of our secular day-to-day life and to turn our minds and hearts to God.” He could be speaking about any Catholic church, anywhere, but in particular he’s addressing St. George’s on Piccadilly Avenue in Westboro. Inside this brick-and-stone building, c. 1923, is a thriving Catholic parish led by Msgr. Hans Feichtinger. St. George’s can hold 400 people; during most weekends (Saturday and Sunday masses combined), the church sees between 250 and 300 people.

The secret to St. George’s success perhaps lies in its young people. With St. George elementary Catholic school within walking distance, there is a strong connection between the church and the school’s children who, it may surprise many to hear, want to go to church!

“There’s a misconception that kids don’t want to go, but what’s surprising is that children are pretty open to going,” Kerslake says.

What’s preventing them? Parents. “Kids notice what adults do … when they see us making time for God, it stays with them,” he adds.

In the past few decades, how has worship on Sunday changed?

Churches struggle with the fact that they can’t now count on all the Catholics from the neighbourhood coming out. … Many, many years ago, Catholics had a strong connection with their parish church. You often walked to church; it was also a big part of your social life. With changing demographics, especially people being more mobile, the church they select may not be the one closest to them. Another reality is that family sizes are smaller, which means fewer physical bodies in the church. And there’s been a decline in Catholics attending regularly too.

— Matt Harrison