The challenges of ownership

The vacant former St. Joachim Roman Catholic Church, Lakeshore

Buildings and architecture

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

Photo: The vacant former St. Joachim Roman Catholic Church, Lakeshore

Historic places of worship may possess cultural heritage values that engender public support for their preservation, but these values sometimes differ from the spiritual and functional needs of their owners and those who worship in them. What an academic or non-believer sees as artistically or architecturally valuable may conflict with what has intense spiritual or personal value for a congregant, not only for reasons of faith but also because of family and community associations built up over many generations. At the same time, Ontario has thousands of underutilized and sometimes dilapidated places of worship that are difficult and expensive to restore and maintain. These issues pose significant challenges to owners faced with making decisions about preservation, re-use or disposal of these buildings or the amalgamation of congregations.

All Saints Anglican Church, Dundas and Sherbourne streets, Toronto, delivers important social outreach programs

The period 1875 to 1925 witnessed intensive church building in Ontario. This era of Christian optimism coincided with international missionary work in Asia and Africa, as well as remarkable local community outreach by the province’s religious groups. So great was the spiritual verve of this era that some churches were built anticipating congregations that never materialized. The period also coincided with an ecumenical spirit among non-conformist or Protestant groups. A town may have boasted Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches, but with the creation of the United Church of Canada some of these buildings became redundant.

Following the mid-20th-century architectural triumphs of modernism, prefabrication and so-called zero-maintenance solutions, there was a tragic shift in theory and practice of facility management. Not only did routine building maintenance decline, but it became impractical as the cost of skilled labour rose dramatically and important traditional skills were no longer widely available. Move forward 50 years, and we see a general erosion of the great Victorian- and Edwardian-era religious monuments. Durable though they have proved to be, whether assaulted by the elements or subjected to modern building “science,” the lack of proper maintenance has had a detrimental effect on their condition. The architectural features that make them distinct – tall steeples, copper and slate roofs, elaborate masonry, robust cornices – also require regular attention and repair and, when neglected, eventually become public hazards.

Finding money for capital repairs is a constant struggle for owners, whether individual congregations or large dioceses. Worship itself is typically a higher priority than the preservation of the place of worship. In addition, almost without exception, organized religion engages in charitable community outreach, and funding these initiatives further reduces the pool of money available for stewardship.

This building in Long Lac, vacant and unused since 2002, was formerly Infant Jesus Roman Catholic Church

This building in Long Lac, vacant and unused since 2002, was formerly Infant Jesus Roman Catholic Church

Another issue is shifting attendance figures. Although more than 35 per cent of Ontarians attend religious services at least once a month, these rates are dramatically lower than 100 years ago. Moreover, changes in demographics and immigration patterns have altered the religious mosaic of the province. Increased suburbanization and secularization since the mid-20th century have affected the size of urban congregations and shifted populations into new areas. The result is often a large rural church orphaned amid a community that no longer needs or can support it, or an urban church that plays an important social service role but no longer has a viable congregation, yet occupies valuable property with high redevelopment potential.

The nature of ownership is another issue that affects planning for the future of a place of worship. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches own property at a corporate or collective level, managing large portfolios that can include hundreds of churches and related properties. Their holdings span many jurisdictions and are subject to different approaches to land use and heritage planning. What is acceptable to one municipal council may be deemed inappropriate in an adjacent one. Moreover, individual congregations may differ over questions related to the preservation, retention or closing of their churches, or their re-use or demolition.

The heritage community still has a long way to go to come to terms with these often overwhelming challenges facing owners of religious heritage properties. Heritage designation alone does not conserve a building, especially one that is vacant and in poor condition. Continued use is important, as is the support of all levels of government and a shared understanding of the problems facing owners. Fundamentally, we need to seek a reasonable and strategic balance between the private needs of ownership and use and the public objectives of architectural conservation.