Six years ago, St. Matthew's Anglican Church was faced with a dwindling congregation, a sprawling century-old building to maintain and the understanding the focus of its much-used structure had gradually shifted from serving God to serving the needs of the larger community.
Church leaders are frank about the crossroads they faced. When they received $500,000 in unexpected bequests, they could have taken the money, used it for operating expenses and shuttered the place when the money was gone.
Instead, they signed a 50-year lease, turning their building and $200,000 over to a non-profit housing organization. What was once a massive church is being transformed into WestEnd Commons (WEC), an affordable rental property for area residents.
It's a more than $6-million project, funded by three levels of government, the United Way, foundations and private donations. An active fundraising campaign is underway.
The 2012 goal is $1.393 million. If you want more information on the project, go to their website (www.thewestendcommons.ca).
"Leaving is not how you serve the community," says lifelong congregant and WEC board member Bob Clarkson. "The building was put here for the community."
The building at 641 St. Matthews Ave. has long been about more than Anglican worship. The Neighbourhood Resource Centre, eight agencies and groups, forms its secular core. Those groups will stay in the freshly renovated lower level. The groups pay rent, low but enough to cover costs. Five worship groups meet in St. Matthew's.
"The building is in use seven days a week," says board member Gail Schnabl. "There are people here from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. or later."
Schnabl says approximately 196,000 hours of volunteer time keep the doors open annually.
Work has begun to reshape St. Matthew's into WestEnd Commons, a 25-unit housing unit. The rental apartments are intended for families and will range from one to four bedrooms. Tenants will include seniors, people with mental-health issues, new immigrants and First Nations families.
Families must have a combined income of less than $50,000. Manitoba Housing will subsidize 21 of the 25 units. A management company will look after the property.
"What this community needs is housing," says Clarkson. "There's quite a bit of bachelor accommodation, rooming houses; that sort of thing."
The units will have full kitchens, private bathrooms, phone lines and cable. Those details aren't taken for granted by anyone who lives in low-income housing.
WestEnd Commons is expected to be complete and fully occupied by February 2014. It's too early to draw up a waiting list.
There will still be a sanctuary, but much of the former church space will be turned over to an interior courtyard for residents. Organizers managed to snag the children's play structure from the old airport. It will be made smaller and put into place for the kids in the Commons.
The church's organ was sold to Holy Trinity Anglican Church for parts. The stained glass windows are up for grabs on Kijiji.
Schnabl describes the project as "a drop in the bucket" for the area's housing crisis. She says it's critical nonetheless.
"This will help the revitalization of a neighbourhood. It's good for the city to help another part of the city."
Bob Clarkson promotes the fiscal good sense of the project.
"Everybody in the city benefits if you bring the housing standard up in any part of the city," he says. "There will be taxes paid on the residential portion of the building. This is about 25 units. It's about Winnipeg."
It is about Winnipeg, and it's about realizing faith finds many forms. There's grace in building communities and sustaining strangers.
In Friday's Free Press, reporter Mary Agnes Welch will continue a series on Winnipeg's crisis in affordable housing by detailing efforts to hike the $285-a-month housing allowance given to welfare recipients, most of whom are disabled and can't work.