From Hamilton, a municipal perspective

St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church is one of 20 designated places of worship in Hamilton and one of three in the city with an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement

Photo: St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church is one of 20 designated places of worship in Hamilton and one of three in the city with an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement


David Cuming

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

Places of worship are often stunning buildings, constructed in forms and styles that have existed for thousands of years around the world, using specialized techniques and materials. Today, in Hamilton, as in many Ontario municipalities, the challenge is less one of creating new places of worship than of trying to conserve and protect redundant religious buildings that have significant cultural heritage value.

Ontario’s 200-year architectural legacy of community worship – Christian worship in particular – has left many municipalities with challenging heritage conservation issues. Hamilton, with its large urban centre and considerable rural hinterland, enjoys a remarkably rich religious heritage. Approximately 20 religious properties in both rural and urban areas of the city have been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Accurately determining what we have is critical to successful conservation, planning and management strategies. The City of Hamilton, through the considerable efforts of its Municipal Heritage Committee’s Inventory and Research Subcommittee, has embarked on an inventory of its existing places of worship. The first part of the survey, completed in 2007, examined the city’s expansive rural and suburban areas, inventorying 95 existing places of worship, as well as 77 that have been lost and 40 that have been constructed since 1967.

Work continues on the inventory, focusing on Hamilton’s urban area. Given the diverse cultural mix and the waves of immigrants that settled here, tracing and documenting the places of worship of the city’s many religious groups and sects is a complex task. For example, Jewish immigrants who arrived during the 1850s echoed earlier Christian residents’ practices of home worship evolving to permanent places of worship such as synagogues, and the establishment of religious schools. Then, throughout the 20th century, non-Judeo-Christian immigrants introduced mosques, gurdwaras and temples, that, while new to Hamilton, drew on centuries of religious tradition.

The new buildings enrich Hamilton’s streetscapes. At the same time, vacant places of worship, especially urban Christian churches from the 19th and early 20th centuries, remain a pressing concern. Plagued equally by reduced congregations and dwindling funds, these churches find routine building maintenance immensely difficult. The often monumental size of the buildings, combined with their heating bills and aging materials – stone, stained glass and slate – present huge conservation challenges. Overlay that with the structural toll on aged spires and towers from several Hamilton earthquakes and the prospect could be gloomy.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Imaginative, innovative adaptive reuse of redundant places of worship for residential purposes is now common. Municipal grants and loans are also available for heritage conservation purposes. For example, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church was awarded funding from the Downtown Hamilton Heritage Property Grant Program to conduct a building condition survey, as well as loan assistance from the Hamilton Community Heritage Fund for protective work on its stained-glass windows. These developments bring rays of hope to the challenge of preserving the city’s rich religious architectural heritage.