Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Keeping Faith in Historic Churches

Holy Trinity Church.

In 2010, I did a feature piece in the Winnipeg Free Press about the plight of historic churches in Manitoba and across the country. I was reminded of it when I learned the former St. Giles United Church in Winnipeg is once again for sale. 

Two years ago, First English Lutheran Church on Maryland Avenue—a fixture in Winnipeg’s west end since 1911—faced an uncertain future.

Sold in 2003 when its dwindling congregation that could no longer afford to maintain it, the church was home to a judo studio before a developer tried, unsuccessfully, to convert it to condos.

Then, in 2008, new life was breathed into the historic structure when Grant Memorial Baptist Church started using it for a new ministry. Today it is home to City Church, a thriving congregation of about 400 people, 90 per cent of them newcomers to Canada from Asia and Africa.

"It's been terrific for us," says City Church co-pastor Tim Nielson. "It was a real answer to prayer."

When it comes to historic places of worship in Winnipeg, there are a lot of people praying—praying and working hard to find funds to fix leaking roofs, old furnaces, cracked plaster, sinking foundations, drafty windows and a host of other repair, upgrade and routine maintenance issues.

That's what's happening at Augustine United, better known as the Village Church. It's one of the city's highest profile and much-loved churches. But it's also trying to keep its doors open.

Built in 1903, and designated as a historic church two years ago, Augustine has a long history of helping others.

But now it's the church itself that's in need of help, to the tune of $750,000 for a new boiler system, to fix the leaky roof, and to repair the stained glass windows.

"I spend a lot of time on fundraising and grant applications," pastor Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd said. "This isn't what I was trained to do."

Augustine United.

A similar situation is unfolding at Trinity Lutheran Church, in the city's north end.

Founded 122 years ago, the congregation moved into its present church in the 1960s.

But even if the building is, by historic standards, youthful, it's facing the same issues as other core area churches: An aging congregation that is getting smaller in numbers every year, while maintenance and repair bills keep growing.

Over the years, Trinity tried knocking on doors and inviting people to worship in an effort to increase membership. It didn't work.

Facing a bleak future, the congregation decided to put the building up for sale in 2005.

"Nobody was interested," says pastor Ron Nelson, citing the church's location as a main reason for the lack of buyers.

At first, their inability to sell was disappointing. Later, the congregation saw it as a call from God to serve the community. Today Trinity hosts a variety of ministries that serve the community.

But the repair bills keep adding up; Nelson estimates that the church needs between $30,000 to $50,000 for repairs to the roof and for new windows—money they don't have.

"This congregation is not going to be around much longer," he says, noting that about 30 people, most of them older, come to worship on Sunday mornings.

"I'm 70, and I'm one of the younger ones."

*      *     *

The challenges facing churches like First English Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran aren't unusual—many older places of worship in Winnipeg's core area are facing the same predicament.

It's a worrisome situation for Cindy Tugwell, Executive Director of Heritage Winnipeg.

"Historic churches are some of the most beautiful structures in the city, and an important part of our heritage," she says. "How can they be sustainable in the 21st century, when congregations are declining? How can they become economically viable?"

Former First English Lutheran.

For every success story like First English Lutheran, which found new life as home for another congregation, Tugwell knows that there are many other churches where the members might one day just find it easier to lock the door and walk away.

"Winnipeggers love their heritage buildings, and we have a great collection of them in our city, including churches," she says.

But unless congregations get financial help from all three levels of government, she's afraid that many of these structures might disappear—in Winnipeg, around the province, and across Canada.

"This is an issue for cities across the country," she says.

*      *     *

As Executive Director of the Heritage Canada Foundation, Natalie Bull probably knows better than almost anyone the dire situation facing old places of worship in Canada.

"It's a crisis . . . a real epidemic," she says of the large number of churches that are up for sale across the country.

Sometimes communities find other uses for these venerable buildings. But, she says, too often "there is no other adaptable use on horizon."

What makes a church hard to sell? Their age, location and the cost of repairs are all major factors.

Official church policies can also pose challenges; some church groups have clear rules for what can or can't be done in a former place of worship—an art gallery might be OK, but a nightclub is out.

Sometimes, a congregation doesn't want to sell their building; they want it to continue as a place of worship, but they lack the expertise needed to keep it in good repair.

"Faith groups are not in the heritage business," says Bull, noting that old churches are complicated to maintain and repair. "They don't know what to do."

Trinity Lutheran.

Bull believes that something needs to be done quickly if Canada's historic churches are to be saved.

"We need to see them similar to way we see lighthouses, railway stations and grain elevators," she says. "Losing them would be a loss to our communities."

*      *     *

What's creating this crisis? In a nutshell, Canadians aren't going to church as much as they used to.

This is especially true for the older mainline denominations. The Anglican Church of Canada, for example, is losing 13,000 members every year; a recent report prepared for that church's bishops suggests that it faces extinction by 2050.

Membership in the United Church, meanwhile, has fallen from 1.4 million in 1961 to 545,000 today; according to media spokesperson Mary-Frances Denis, the denomination has been closing a church every week for the past 12 years.

Over at the Presbyterian Church of Canada, membership fell 39 percent from 1961-2001. Lutherans are doing better; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada only lost 5.2 percent of its members, while the Lutheran Church of Canada went down just 1.9 percent.

Attendance at Roman Catholic churches has also dropped, with only about 30 percent of Roman Catholics going to Mass regularly.

Fewer people at services means fewer dollars in the offering plate, and also a need for fewer churches.

All of which puts these grand structures in danger—unless new ways can be found to keep them going.

That's where Bob Jaeger, Executive Director of Partners for Sacred Places, comes in.
Headquartered in Philadelphia, Pa., Partners describes itself as "the only national organization providing practical assistance on property care and stewardship, focusing on community-serving, historic, religious properties."

For Jaeger, that means giving the congregations of historic places of worship "the tools they need to help them articulate the larger public value of their buildings, so they can attract new funders, partners and donors."

And how can they do that? Surveys done by Partners show that 91 percent of historic churches are open to the wider community, that congregants provide more than 5,000 volunteer hours—the equivalent of two and a half full time employees—and about $140,000 in subsidies in the form of free space or donations.

At the same time, its surveys show that 81 percent of people who use downtown church buildings are not members.

In other words, these "sacred places have public value," says Jaeger, noting that these churches, which are usually located in downtown or core areas, provide a host of necessary services for the homeless, the hungry, for youth, seniors, children, disabled people and immigrants, among many others.

Despite, this, governments fail to recognize the important role historic churches play in their neighbourhoods.

"An active church benefits the community," he says.

*      *     *

So: Where to from here?

Heritage Winnipeg's Tugwell believes that the City and the Province need to be more deliberate about helping congregations save their places of worship, or come up with alternative uses.

More money would help, too.

Westminster United Church. Mike Deal photo, Winnipeg Free Press.

"Governments have to get behind restoration from a social perspective," she says, adding that restored places of worship can "help with the rehabilitation of a declining neighbourhood."

All three levels of governments "need to offer stronger incentives to maintain and preserve old churches, and help churches access money for preventative maintenance."

Heritage Canada's Bull thinks that people across Canada need to work together more.

To help accomplish this, she helps organize the National Places of Faith Roundtable, which brings together people from across Canada who are concerned about the future of this country's historic places of worship.

At the 2009 meeting, participants identified areas of concern such as the lack of educational materials to help congregations preserve or repurpose their buildings; the need to convince communities about the important role places of worship play in their towns and cities; and the high costs of maintaining and preserving historic places of worship.

But they also shared success stories. "We can learn from what working in other provinces," says Bull.

For Jaeger of Partners for Sacred Places, this is a time for creativity.

"You tell the story of all the lives your church has touched—the weddings and baptisms, the funerals, the organ concerts. You reach out to the groups that have used it. You put on homecomings that bring people back. And all of that can be empowering."

He also encourages congregations looking for assistance to list all the ways they serve people in their surrounding area, and put a value on it.

The goal is to "make a case, to show how the building is a public asset," he says, adding that "churches need to broaden the family who cares about the building."

*      *     *

That's what Winnipeg's Trinity Lutheran is doing. The church has made its building available to other groups who want to either use it for worship services, or to offer services in the community.

Groups now calling it home include the First Nation's Family Worship Centre, Aberdeen Mennonite Church and Secret Place, which offers meals to people in the area on a weekly basis.

Former St. Giles United Church.

"They just keep coming," says Nelson of the various groups that want to use the church building.

They could accommodate more groups, he adds, but "storage is an issue. Each group needs some storage area."

Sharing their facility with so many groups is also challenging—schedules have to be coordinated, space shared, rooms locked.

"I don't know any congregation that wouldn't like to be by themselves," he says. "But this was the best way to keep the church going. It was either this or shut down."

Each of the groups that uses the building pays rent, but that's also a challenge: Churches typically don't see themselves as landlords, and pastors aren't trained to manage relationships with tenants, or to collect overdue rent.

"Some of the groups that use facilities don't have much money, and some are not used to paying rent," says Nelson.

Despite the challenges, the experience has been good for the congregation, he says.

"Our definition of church has changed. We've gone from being a church for German Lutherans to being a church for the community. We've been learning what the Gospels are talking about."

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