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Church's act of faith

St. Matthew's unveils plans for apartments

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For Bob Clarkson, demolishing the grand interior of the West End church where he was married and his five children were baptized is simply a matter of faith.

"It's an attempt to meet a community need," the church treasurer says of the upcoming construction that will eventually convert the 12,500-square-foot sanctuary of St. Matthew's Anglican Church into 24 apartments.

After seven years of discussion, engineering studies and architectural drawings, last week the church unveiled its final plans for the WestEnd Commons, a project that will transform the block-long brick building into affordable housing for up to 100 people, while maintaining a dedicated worship space for St. Matthew's.

"The parish has given away a huge amount. The parish gives away its building, it gives away much that it holds dear, it gives away the familiar, it gives away (financial) security," says Rev. Cathy Campbell of the huge sacrifices the congregation of about 75 agreed to make in order to ensure the housing project goes forward.

"It has committed all of its bequests, all of its physical assets. It does that in faith. It does it because that's what God is calling us to do."

Sixteen of the apartments are set aside for low-income households and four are designated for residents with mental-health challenges. The plans also include an indoor playground and a common area to foster interaction between residents.

After construction is completed in about 18 months, the congregation of St. Matthew's will worship in a 2,000-square-foot chapel at the southeast corner of the building, which will cost $250,000 to construct. The new chapel will incorporate several of the existing stained-glass windows and some of the current furnishings.

The congregation has also committed $200,000 toward the cost of the housing project, which has a total price tag of nearly $5 million.

In a news conference announcing $2.2 million in funds from three levels of government, federal minister Steven Fletcher wondered how the people of St. Matthew's could bear to part with their lovely building, originally constructed at that location in 1913 and then rebuilt in 1947 after a fire.

"This is a beautiful structure," Fletcher said at Monday's announcement, held under the coved ceiling, which soars 20 metres at its peak.

"Rev. Campbell, it must be a little bittersweet to see this common area transformed."

More than one church member admits to those mixed emotions about the transformation of worship space to affordable housing.

"I love the building, I love the pipe organ and the windows and the space," says Gwen McAllister, a member of the congregation for eight years.

"Even though we're a small group, we've used this space."

"There will be a church and I guess one way of seeing it is that the church is not really the building," adds Gail Schnabl, a board member of St. Matthew's Non-Profit Housing Inc., which will operate the building. "The church is a community."

Although parishioners are attached to the space, Campbell agrees a church is more than any physical building and the only way the congregation could continue its work in the West End was to free itself from maintaining and running the large building, which has a seating capacity of 1,200.

"It seemed in order to release St. Matthew's to be the parish God is calling it to be, we needed to be in a different relationship to the building," she says.

"We will create sacred spaces, worship space for the community to come and pray, in a place that is sustainable."

Once construction is completed in mid-2012, the congregation will become a tenant in the building it has owned for nearly a century.

Clarkson said the congregation could have survived for only a few years more in its current manner before bequests that subsidized the maintenance bills would have run out.

"There is a small number in the congregation very reluctant to see it go," he says. "Most of the members realize there is very little alternative."

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FOR sale: wooden pews, pipe organ, and stained-glass windows. Good shape. Available immediately.

Along with giving up a 12,500-sq.-ft. worship space, parishioners of St. Matthew's Anglican Church will also soon be parting with their Casavant pipe organ, many of their elaborate arched stained-glass windows and various fittings such as pews and lecterns.

"I would love for the organ to find a new church home. I would love for all the stained glass" to go into another church, says Rev. Cathy Campbell, priest of St. Matthew's since 2003.

Several of the stained-glass windows, including the large one at the front of the sanctuary, will be incorporated into the new, smaller chapel to be carved out of the southeast corner of the current worship space.

Some of the architectural features, such as the wooden coved ceilings and other wood trim, will be reused in the chapel, says architect Ken MacKinnon of Friesen Tokar Architects, the firm that is designing the space.

Before demolition of the main floor begins, which includes taking out the balcony, choir loft and staircases, the congregation will hold a service to secularize the sanctuary, which has housed St. Matthew's Anglican Church since 1913.

A fire in 1944 destroyed the interior of the building, which was rebuilt in 1947.

"It's a prayer (service) where we remember and call to mind and offer up all the meaningful events of this space," says Campbell of the service that is planned for late April.

"The baptismal font, the altar, the lectern for teaching, the organ. All will be remembered and prayed about."

Three other congregations now meeting in the church basement -- Grain of Wheat Church Community, Emmanuel Mission and Shiloh Apostolic -- will continue to meet in the lower level after the construction is completed.

In addition to the four worshipping congregations, seven community organizations rent space in the lower-level community resource centre, completely renovated in 2006.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2011 H13

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