Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Does it Matter if a Historic Church Closes?

The former St. Giles United Church in Winnipeg is for sale  (And cheap—just $149,000.) The historic building is just one of the many old churches in Canada that are coming up on the real estate market. I wrote about St. Giles in 2010 as part of a feature article in the Winnipeg Free Press about the plight of historic churches in Manitoba and across the country.

For more than 100 years, St.Giles Presbyterian Church has been a fixture on Burrows Avenue.

The church began as a mission church in 1884 in the North End. It quickly grew, and a larger facility was built in 1886. 

When that was full, a third church was built in 1889. When that building became too small, a fourth church was erected in 1908 at the corner of Burrows and Charles Street.

In 1925, St. Giles voted to join the United Church. By then, it had a congregation of almost 500 people and one of the largest Sunday schools in Winnipeg.

By the 1960s, the church's fortunes began to decline as members moved to the suburbs. In the early 1970s, the United Church Mission Board withdrew its annual grant and in 1972, the congregation of 100 voted to disband.

A year later, the building was sold to the Mennonite Church, becoming the Burrows Bethel Mennonite Church. When that church disbanded in 1995, the building was given to the Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship, a Baptist church that worships in it today.

The story of St. Giles Presbyterian is a microcosm for Christianity, and for historic churches, in Manitoba and Canada over the past 50 years.

There’s a crisis confronting Canadian places of worship today. Thousands of older churches face uncertain futures due to declining attendance and onerous repair and maintenance bills.

So far, the story of St. Giles is a good one. It still functions as a church. Others aren’t so lucky. 

Some have been demolished to make way for new buildings. A few have been converted into offices, condos, concert halls, dance studios, restaurants or bars. But many more are ending up unneeded and unwanted—empty, abandoned and derelict.

But so what? Who cares if a church closes? Buildings of all kinds come and go all the time. And don’t Christians believe that God lives in human hearts, not buildings, anyway?

Old church buildings matter for a lot of reasons. They tie us to the past. As some of the oldest buildings in most communities, they are physical reminders of our history and heritage.

For the many people who came to Canada as immigrants in the 20th century, these churches matter because they were the places where they found welcome, refuge, support, clothing, money, food and other supports for strangers in a strange new land.

Later, as these immigrant populations became established, they helped preserve their language and culture, enabling them passing it on to succeeding generations.

For others, old churches matter because of strong emotional connections. They are places where they, their parents or grandparents were married, or where they were baptized as babies.  

They are places where the lives of loved ones were celebrated when they died. They are places filled with sacred memories, both happy and sad.

Old churches also matter to those who never worshipped in them. Historic churches are often anchors in a community, a geographical touchstone, a way of letting you know you are home when you see the steeple. It gives a neighbourhood some of its character.

But those aren't the only reasons old churches matter. Since most of them are found in core areas, they provide or host important services for many—organizations and ministries that address issues such as poverty, hunger, illiteracy, addictions, or that serve children, youth, families, seniors, newcomers and people with disabilities, among others.

But now many of they historic churches are in big trouble. It's a simple matter of economics: It's impossible to pay the heat, water and hydro bills, plus salaries and all the regular maintenance, when only a few people attend services and the offerings are so small.

The best-case scenario would be for them to find new life as homes for new congregations, as happened to St. Giles. But even then it’s a big challenge to find funds for repairs and upkeep. 

The Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship congregation has had to spend money to add a sprinkler system, fix the boiler and put on a new roof—all on a shoestring budget. And there’s more work that needs to be done.

"I try to tap any angle possible for funds," said pastor Dietrich Desmarais, noting that the burden of keeping the building going is too great for his small congregation.

So does it matter if an old church closes? It matters to the members of Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship. 

It matters to those in the area who receive services through it. 

It matters to the community, which doesn’t want an empty, run-down building in the neighbourhood. 

And it should matter to all who care about history and heritage.

But the future of St. Giles, and other historic churches, isn’t bright. As interest in religion wanes, and church attendance falls, it is less likely they will be able to serve their original purpose.

One day, it may once again be on the market. Unlike in the past, there may be no other church that wants to buy it.

It that happens, we may then, as Joni Mitchell sang, not know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

Also see my longer feature piece from the Free Press on this blog about the Canada-wide issue of historic churches.

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