A North End church building originally constructed by Lutherans and then owned by Mennonites is proving to be a good fit for Winnipeg’s only Indigenous Roman Catholic parish.
"This was our dream to get a new church, a place for our people," explains Rev. Arokia Vijay Deivanayagam, priest at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Aboriginal Catholic Parish.
He says the new building at 265 Flora Ave., just south of Selkirk Avenue and a short block east of Main Street, meets the parish’s criteria of being physically accessible, close to public transportation and near where most of its 150 parishioners live.
The parish, named after the 17th-century Mohawk woman who became the first Indigenous saint from North America, met in a multi-level building on the corner of Home Street and Ellice Avenue for the past three decades. That building is now for sale and the proceeds will go toward the $225,000 purchase price of the new space.
The Archdiocese of Winnipeg owns all the property in its jurisdiction, explains Rev. Richard Arsenault, chancellor for the archdiocese, but the parishes maintain the buildings.
He says the Indigenous parish was searching for a new space for two years and borrowed the money from the archdiocese to purchase the Flora Avenue property.
"It looks like a church (building) we can certainly work with and it has the basic footprint we need," says Arsenault.
The parish moved in slowly since taking over ownership from Aberdeen Evangelical Mennonite Church in January, holding its first service on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17, just days after provincial restrictions lifted to allow small groups to worship.
Weekend masses run at 5 p.m on Saturday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday for 30 people, following provincial pandemic guidelines in place at press time. The parish also livestreams services on Facebook.
Deivanayagam says the parish is still trying to make the space its own, installing crucifixes and Indigenous symbols in the mid-century modern 300-seat sanctuary illuminated by arched windows high on the red brick walls, constructed in 1968 as the second home for Trinity Lutheran Church.
Trinity Lutheran closed in 2013 after celebrating its 125th anniversary. Its final act was to hand over the keys and ownership of the property to their renter, Aberdeen Evangelical Mennonite Church, to ensure the multiple services and ministries could continue.
At the time, several other groups and congregations were using the building for food banks, worship and other meetings when Aberdeen took ownership eight years ago, says minister Teresa Enns Zehr. Since then, several groups folded or found other homes, and when COVID-19 hit nearly a year ago, even worship stopped.
"It’s too big of a building for a small congregation of 40 or so on a Sunday morning and a lot of upkeep," explains Zehr of the 10,000-sq.-ft complex, which includes a main floor dining hall and kitchen, break-out rooms and office space.
The Mennonite church now rents two small rooms for office and storage and plans to resume worship at some point in the dining hall. Zehr says her congregation looks forward to collaborating with St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in ministries to the neighbourhood. Right now, the Mennonite group runs a bi-weekly food bank and Lutherans offer a monthly food program.
"We’re excited to be partners in the building with them and be their renters," says Enns, a long-time resident of the North End.
Now that the move is completed and worship has resumed on a limited scale, the parish will assess what’s next for them. Deivanayagam plans to invite the support groups using their former West End church to move into the new building and will consider opening space to the community once pandemic restrictions ease.
A few of the elements particular to the original Lutheran owners may have to go, including the electronic organ and speakers in the balcony, but the new location offers flexibility for worship, community meals, smudging ceremonies, wakes and funerals, and outdoor celebrations on the fenced-in lawn.
"We would like to reach out to the neighbouring community here," says the Indian-born priest who worked in two northern Manitoba parishes before moving to Winnipeg in September 2019.
"We want to build bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.