A church that has long offered spiritual comfort to inner-city families will soon be offering physical comfort as well.
St. Matthews Anglican Church, at the corner of St. Matthews Avenue and Maryland Street, is being converted into 26 homes for single-parent families, newcomers to Canada, First Nations families, people with mental-health challenges and others.
The apartments will range in size from one to four bedrooms and occupancy is projected for February 2014. The atrium and community space will include some of the beauty of the original sanctuary. The church area will shrink while remaining home to six faith communities. The Neighbourhood Resource Centre already occupies the newly renovated basement. Altogether, this place will be known as the WestEnd Commons.
The name "Commons" brings to mind a certain spirit and way of living together. In days gone by -- and even now in towns and cities throughout the world -- there would often be a place for people to gather, usually a central square or park known as "the commons." This was a place that belonged equally to everyone: a place where issues pertaining to the community were discussed, joys celebrated and sorrows or difficulties carried together. Likewise, the WestEnd Commons is interested in more than quality, affordable housing. We are also interested in collaborating with the residents to create safe, welcoming, inclusive, vibrant communities which foster the well-being of the children and adults who live there.
When I think about what inspires me about the WestEnd Commons, I can't help but contrast it with the homes sections of newspapers and glossy magazines that showcase the modern home. Huge, sparse, colour-co-ordinated rooms with few people in them; matching, but often useless, decor; sleek, bare kitchen counters; and furniture that seems to be more for show than comfort.
Beautiful in a particular way, perhaps, but I wonder if these pictures reflect what is really important to most families.
It brings to mind an experience I had while living in Sudan. I went to visit a woman named Faiza, who had just had a baby. Faiza lived in a mud house she shared with her extended family. There was no electricity, so the room was lit with a kerosene lantern and scented wood was burning in a small clay dish. Chickens and small children ran in and out of the room. The baby lay close to his mother. Neighbours, family and friends were together celebrating the safe arrival of another child. That night at Faiza's there was a sense of security and contentment that is often elusive in much more affluent settings.
I would argue we all do better when we are surrounded by pleasing physical environments. Sometimes a pleasing environment means less space and more people and includes common spaces to gather and be together, where the smells, sounds and colours of food, music, art, hospitality and everyday life abound and reflect the diverse traditions and strengths of the people living there.
At the WestEnd Commons, we want to join together with other groups and organizations and residents of the West End to continue to build on a spirit of commonality. The West End is full of resourceful individuals and families, many of whom also face difficult challenges. These include problems a person or family alone has very little control over, such as poverty, shortage of good, affordable housing and racism. But amazing things can happen when we come together, raise our voices and contribute our skills, wisdom and energy toward a common purpose. As we do this, the troubles lose their power to defeat us.
With this in mind, we are planning a concert at the West End Cultural Centre on May 4, 2013. Performers include William Prince (a singer/songwriter from Peguis now living in Winnipeg), Anne-Marie Williot (half of the duo Chez Willi from the West End community), The Bahatizz (a group of four women from the Congo now living in Winnipeg) and Gordon Bell's Peaceful Village Drummers.
We will also have more information available about the WestEnd Commons. Tickets are $20 and are available at the West End Cultural Centre and McNally Robinson Booksellers. For more information about the WestEnd Commons, including ways to help financially with the project, check out our website at www.thewestendcommons.ca. For more information about the concert on May 4, call Angie at 204-784-4029.
Angelika (Angie) Jantz is a board member of St. Matthews Non-Profit Housing Inc. which oversees the WestEnd Commons. She works as a social worker at Klinic Community Health Centre and volunteers at the West End Cultural Centre. She has also been fortunate enough to have lived and worked in Thompson, Manitoba and Atbara, Sudan.