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This article was published 17/1/2015 (826 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Far from her family in Peru, Erika Frey longed to have other moms and babies around when she had her first child in Winnipeg last spring.
"When you have a baby, it’s a big thing," said the woman who moved to Canada six years ago after meeting her husband from Steinbach in Mexico.
Now she’s living with nearly two dozen families in what used to be St. Matthew’s Anglican Church. With a shrinking congregation and in need of major repairs, the big brick building first built in 1913 was gutted and turned into WestEnd Commons.
After three years of construction and $7.3 million, it’s home to tenants from all walks of life.
It houses 26 apartments, six churches and is a social hub of its inner-city neighbourhood at the corner of Maryland Street and St. Matthews Avenue. At its heart is an indoor park located in the centre of the four-storey atrium.
"This playground is amazing," said Frey, whose family moved in Dec. 1. "It’s a big meeting space — you can do your laundry while the kids are playing," she said as her toddler Bram played with his neighbour Hannah Pham, who soon turns one.
"I always wanted to live as part of a community, where everyone comes together," said Frey. The converted church fits the bill.
"There’s an opportunity to support each other. Neighbours help each other with things like child care," said Frey. She works part-time and swaps babysitting with neighbour Oanh Pham, who works weekends and has Frey watch her toddler, Hannah.
Craig Sharpe can toss a football around with his two kids when they come to visit their dad who lives in an apartment with his wife and volunteers in the food bank below. Sharpe, who battles depression and anxiety, said living in the Commons has given him a chance to connect with people. He’s helped organize social events for tenants.
"What we’ve made is a place that’s safe and given Craig a gazillion ways to contribute to the community," said Rev. Cathy Campbell of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church.
Sharpe and Pham, a single mom, are in two of the 20 rent-geared-to-income suites supported by Manitoba Housing.
Frey and her husband, who works full time in the social-work field, pay the market rate, $983 for a two-bedroom apartment. There are three other market-rate units still available — a one-bedroom for $700 and two other two-bedroom suites.
"It’s beautiful," said Frey. Their second-floor apartment has a large open living area with big windows overlooking the chimneys of their West End neighbours. A vacant two-bedroom apartment on the third floor has an entire wall that’s the arched wooden ceiling of the old sanctuary that used to seat 1,200.
"I like how the old is still in with the new," said Sharpe, who’s seen more activity and young families in the neighbourhood since the church was gutted and reborn.
"We were losing families because of the bad reputation of the neighbourhood," said Campbell, who promoted the idea of giving the church to the community for affordable housing and sharing its space to benefit it. The church donated the building, nearly $200,000 to the project and spent another $250,000 to renovate their worship space, with the congregation becoming a tenant. The property, renamed WestEnd Commons, is now owned and managed by St. Matthew Non-Profit Housing Inc., a partnership of Grain of Wheat Church and St. Matthew’s Anglican Church.
About 40 per cent of the total $7.3-million project cost was contributed by three levels of government, with the remainder made up by donations and a mortgage.
"Sometimes it was a bit of a slog," said Campbell. The five agencies that occupy its Neighbourhood Resource Centre on the lower level moved up and down to make way for the reconstruction. "Now everybody’s in their permanent homes." Except for the three vacant market-rate units.
Jenna Drabble, the community co-ordinator at WestEnd Commons, has an idea of who would make a good tenant: "someone who values community and has a general understanding of what we’re trying to do here."