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Who cares if a church closes? You should

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/12/2010 (2429 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For more than 100 years, St. Giles Presbyterian Church has been a fixture on Burrows Avenue.

The church began as a mission church in 1884 in the North End. It quickly grew, and a larger facility was built in 1886. When that was full, a third church was built in 1889. When that building became too small, a fourth church was erected in 1908 at the corner of Burrows and Charles Street.

In 1925, St. Giles voted to join the United Church. By then, it had a congregation of almost 500 people and one of the largest Sunday schools in Winnipeg. By the 1960s, however, the church's fortunes began to decline as members moved to the suburbs. In the early 1970s, the United Church Mission Board withdrew its annual grant and in 1972, the congregation of 100 voted to disband.

A year later, the building was sold to the Mennonite Church, becoming the Burrows Bethel Mennonite Church. When that church disbanded in 1995, the building was given to the Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship, a Baptist church that worships in it today.

The story of St. Giles Presbyterian is a microcosm for Christianity, and for historic churches, in Manitoba and Canada over the past 50 years. As I note elsewhere in today's paper, there's a crisis confronting Canadian places of worship -- thousands of older churches face uncertain futures due to declining attendance and onerous repair and maintenance bills.

The story of St. Giles has a happy ending: It still functions as a church. Others won't be so lucky. Some will be demolished to make way for new buildings. A few might be converted into offices, condos, concert halls, dance studios, restaurants or bars. But many more could end up unwanted, empty, abandoned and derelict.

But so what? Who cares if a church closes? Buildings of all kinds come and go all the time. And doesn't God live in human hearts, not buildings, anyway? Old church buildings matter for a lot of reasons. They tie us to the past. As some of the oldest buildings in most communities, they are physical reminders of our history and heritage.

For the many who came to Canada as immigrants in the 20th century, they were places that offered welcome, refuge, support, clothing, money, food and other benefits in a new land. Later, they were places that helped preserve their culture, passing it on to succeeding generations.

Many people have strong emotional connections to old churches. That's where they or their parents and grandparents were married, where as babies they were dedicated or baptized. It's where the lives of loved ones were celebrated when they died. They are places filled with sacred memories, both happy and sad.

Even those who never worshipped in them would miss them if they were gone. The old church at the corner is like an anchor in a community, a geographical touchstone, a way of letting you know you are home when you see the steeple. It gives a neighbourhood character.

But those aren't the only reasons to care for old churches. Since most of them are found in core areas, they provide or host important services for many -- organizations and ministries that address issues such as poverty, hunger, illiteracy, alcohol and substance abuse, or that serve children, youth, seniors, newcomers and people with disabilities, among others.

And now many of these historic churches and some other older places of worship are in big trouble. It's a simple matter of economics: It's impossible to pay the heat, water and hydro bills, plus salaries and all the regular maintenance, when only a few people attend services and the offerings are so small.

The best-case scenario would be for these older churches to find new life as homes for new congregations, as happened to St. Giles. In addition to keeping the building alive, it benefits the community.

"The community is invested in it," says Bethlehem pastor Dietrich Desmarais. "They wouldn't want an old, rundown building in their neighbourhood."

The church offers a food bank, youth outreach, job counselling, clothes closet and other ministries. "It's an integral part of community life," he says.

But keeping an old building going is a challenge. The congregation has added a sprinkler system, fixed the boiler and put on a new roof, all on a shoestring budget. And more work needs to be done.

"I try to tap any angle possible for funds," says Desmarais, noting the burden of keeping the building going is too great for his small congregation.

So who cares if a church closes? The people who attend Bethlehem Aboriginal Fellowship care, and so do the people who live near the church. And the rest of us should care for all the other churches and places of worship in Manitoba in danger of closing -- for the sake of history and for the health and well-being of our city and province.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

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