Revitalizing Places of Faith

Labyrinth Christ Church, Anglican, Ottawa

Labyrinth Christ Church, Anglican, Ottawa

The Canadian landscape, be it urban or rural, is punctuated with places of faith that tell the story of our shared history: the modest church of early settlers, the magnificent churches built in wealthier industrial cities, the chapels built by immigrants in the styles of their homelands, and the suburban modernist churches abrim with post-War optimism (and parking for all those station wagons!).

These places continue to mirror our contemporary society that is increasingly urban, secular and multicultural. Abandoned small churches are a common site in rural Canada, and increasingly in our cities. The dramatic reduction in church attendance over the past decades has resulted in many For Sale signs appearing on buildings. By some estimates, more than 9,000 churches across the country will go that way over the next 5-10 years.

However, these places of faith are not just passive windows into our past. They have been – and can continue to be key! – key players in developing and supporting vibrant and sustainable communities.

To inspire hope for the future of these landmarks, the National Trust for Canada has recently partnered with Faith & the Common Good to develop practical tools and training on how to regenerate a place of faith.  Regardless of who will own a church building in the future, these places matter to their communities. By virtue of their historical role as local hubs and their very physical presence, they have the potential to inspire equally strong bonds with a new generation.

All saints, Ottawa

All saints, Ottawa

To that end, this past May the partners held a dynamic workshop at Allsaints Ottawa (the former All Saints Anglican Church) in Sandy Hill. This event brought together faith groups, community and social service associations and the heritage conservation community.  More than 75 people participated, with representatives from several Christian denominations, Jewish and Muslim groups, municipal government, homelessness and affordable housing organizations, the development and architectural communities, and heritage advocates.

The workshop’s opening panel set the tone for the day, creating an open and participatory dialogue between the panelists and the audience. The panelists spoke passionately about the role that faith groups and their buildings can play in today’s society, and how heritage conservation principles can be an enabler of good real estate decisions.

The audience shared their personal connection with places of faith at risk: their struggles to keep a congregation active and engaged with their community, the difficulty of making real estate decisions, and the emotional turmoil that can emerge in a congregation when faced with difficult decisions.

After hearing about successful regeneration projects from across the country and from here in Ottawa, the participants rolled up their sleeves and, in smaller groups led by an impressive list of experts, learnt about the key elements of regenerating a place of faith.

These elements include:

-The critical importance of clearly defining the mission and vision of the place

-How to productively engage with your community

-The limitations and potentials of your property

-Creative financial strategies that should be explored to fund a major project

-Which groups in Ottawa have a demand for social purpose real estate, and their needs and priorities

The day may have begun with emotional stories of places of faith at risk, but the presentations and discussion groups quickly provided participants with an optimistic view of the future, balanced with the clear-eyed reality that successful regeneration projects take a lot of work.  Participants left the workshop feeling better armed to face the challenges that lie ahead for their place of faith, and with the knowledge that these places can continue to be cornerstones of their communities.

The partners wish to thank the Community Foundation of Ottawa for sponsoring this event.

To learn more about the National Trust’s involvement with the regeneration of places of faith, visit our web page at www.nationaltrustcanada.ca , or contact the author at rpajot@nationaltrustcanada.ca.

Robert Pajot is the Project Leader for Regeneration at the National Trust for Canada.