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This article was published 9/3/2013 (2417 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
From the outside, nothing much has changed at the large, red-brick building at the corner of Maryland Street and St. Matthews Avenue.
But the inside of what was once the city's largest Anglican Church is now clearly a construction zone as the building is slowly transformed into affordable housing.
Last week, the last official mark of St. Matthew's Anglican Church vanished when the exterior church signs were replaced with two large banners proclaiming the new name of the building, WestEnd Commons.
"Up until now, for people outside the building, it's been an idea," explains Rev. Cathy Campbell of the structural work and gutting of the former grand worship space.
"The outside isn't going to look massively different, but the inside is massively different."
The new banner at the south end also lists the six congregations that worship in the space, indicating the building no longer belongs exclusively to St. Matthew's Anglican Church.
Campbell's dream of converting the 12,500-square-foot sanctuary into 26 affordable housing units in the West End is still a year from completion, but there's already evidence of significant progress inside on the $6.6-million project.
Three levels of government provided about 40 per cent of the funding, with the remainder split between a mortgage and private contributions. The project is still $1.5 million short, says Campbell.
A large steel beam bisects the former choir loft and space where the pipe organ was originally fitted, and more steel beams outline the atrium that will provide common space for the 100 residents expected to move into the apartments in March 2014.
"I sort of say to parishioners, 'Don't look unless you want to look,' " Campbell says of visiting the stripped-down and dusty space, where construction is on hold until final architectural drawings are complete.
"It's one thing to see it at the end (of construction), but it's another to see it stripped."
Construction workers uncovered a few surprises while demolishing the interior. They found a set of leaded glass windows at the main entrance that were plastered over when the original 1913 church was rebuilt after a fire in 1944. More evidence of that fire is visible in the charred beams and bricks in the former meeting rooms at the north end of the building.
Along with five other congregations who use the building, St. Matthew's Anglican now worships in the lower-level Neighbourhood Resource Centre, which houses eight community agencies during the week.
Once construction is completed next March, the small congregation, now numbering about 50, will meet in an 1,800-square-foot chapel in the southwest corner of what used to be their 1,200-seat sanctuary.
Campbell acknowledges the transition from grand worship space to a basement meeting room has been a strain on some church members.
"A handful of seniors in the congregation found the change too much and have found other places nearer to their homes to worship," she says, adding that weekly Sunday-morning attendance has dwindled to about 50.
"Most of the congregation has taken up the challenge and is hanging in and most of the time enjoying the change."
For the people of Emmanuel Mission Church, which attracts up to 100 people of mostly South Sudanese origin to its weekly worship and social events, the transition from using the large main-floor space to a smaller basement hasn't been quite so smooth.
"It doesn't look like a church (downstairs)," says leader Rueben Garang of their temporary basement meeting space.
"It was not just a place for us to come and worship, but also a place to mingle and socialize."
Because the Grain of Wheat Church-Community was already meeting in the lower level, the construction hasn't affected them much, says church leader Roger Gateson, acknowledging other congregations in the building have sacrificed more.
"It's an awkward time for St. Matthew's," says Gateson, who chairs St. Matthew Non-Profit Housing Inc., the organization overseeing WestEndCommons.
"They've given us the building and put their money into it and now they're waiting for their worship space."
While they're waiting for the walls to go up and the dust to settle, Campbell's congregation is imagining what their future mission and ministry could be, now that they no longer have to run and maintain the old brick building, leased to WestEnd Commons for the next half-century.
"It's freeing to the congregation to think in a way it couldn't think until now," says Campbell, who has devoted much of her time in the last seven years to the housing project.
"This year, we're exploring models of ministry that will be sustainable for the future."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.
Updated on Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 7:42 AM CST: edit
7:47 AM: edit