Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Repurposing Cathedrals

"A church closes every week. It is a huge phenomenon. Everyone needs to make a compromise so the buildings find a useful life in society and continue to convey their historical significance."
"Today we speak a lot more about finding uses for churches."
Denis Boucher, project manager, Religious Heritage Council, Quebec

"It becomes almost a religion for some people. I see it with yoga, with taking care of yourself, being careful about what you eat, having a healthy lifestyle."
Sonya Audrey Bonon, general manager, Saint-Jude Espace Tonus gym

"Of course there are a lot of churches for the number of people who go to church, but that's not a reason to close everything. Yes, people don't go, but that doesn't mean they will never go. There are ups and downs. It isn't always going to go down."
Alain Walhin, assistant to vicar general, archdiocese of Montreal

"Churches are important because they are intimately tied to the identity of Quebecers. When a church is privatized, it's as if former parishioners who contributed to its construction are dispossessed. They are losing their own heritage."
"It just pushes back the problem [resisting repurposing]. [Msgr. Lepine] thinks that Quebecers are going to return to church, which is completely out of the question. There may be sporadic returns by certain small groups, but the loss of interest is widespread and it's irreversible. It's not just limited to Quebec; it's in Europe and in all western countries in general."
Lyne Bernier, researcher, Canada research chair on urban heritage, Universite du Quebec a Montreal
Old churches seeking new vocationsBoarded up and abandoned for years, a wall of this former Methodist church collapsed last weekend. Once the home of the Negro Community Centre in Little Burgundy, it has been empty since 1989 and was home to squatters. The Sud-Ouest borough is struggling to develop a plan that would see vacant churches turned into something useful.   Photograph by: Allen McInnis , Montreal Gazette

There was a time, not so distant in memory when attending church was balm for the soul, when faithfully showing up at church throughout the week demonstrated one's dedication to a hallowed spiritual figure and to secure the faithful's place in the eternity of Heaven after death. The church represented the temple of the soul; now, when so many churches are going begging for parishioners and the church can no longer afford its own upkeep, surrendering to selling its structures, it becomes a temple dedicated to the welfare of the body.

On St.-Denis Street in Montreal, Dominican St. Jude's Shrine has metamorphosed into the Sainte-Jude Espace Tonus gym, and it no longer wants for enthusiastic, dedicated attendees. Now, on Sundays throughout the land, church parking lots are no longer filled with the vehicles of the faithful. On the other hand, all manner of gyms and fitness clubs must ensure they have adequate parking spaces for the numbers of people thronging to them.

Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec; Saint-Jude Espace Tonu
Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec; Saint-Jude Espace TonuSt. Jude’s, before its transformation at top, and after. Graeme Hamilton

Once, people valued the opportunity to speak with their parish priest. More latterly, people speak with casual pride of their "personal trainer". Society has transformed itself from a once-heartily religious one, to the religion of ensuring that the temple of their body is well cared for. This is the manner in which people now aspire to an eternity of longer, healthier life-spans. The churches, mostly Roman Catholic, that have undergone transformations to theatres and social clubs are valued for their architectural heritage as much as for their social/religious heritage.

In an attempt by municipal and provincial authorities to fully respect the architectural heritage of a province whose politics were once inescapably intertwined with religion but which has since become passionately secular, there is seen a cultural obligation to respect the architectural heritage value of beautiful old churches, not so much what those churches were built to achieve. This led to the creation of Quebec's Religious Heritage Council.

Joëlle Saint-Louis/Théâtre Paradoxe
Joëlle Saint-Louis/Théâtre ParadoxeMontreal's Théatre Paradoxe preserved much of the original interior, right down to wood from the confessionals that was used to make the bar.
The Council was created in 1995 with funding from provincial coffers, its mission to repair the churches falling into disrepair. Diminishing congregations led to parishes struggling to pay for repairs and this is where the Council helpfully stepped in, identifying those buildings representing the greatest heritage value and subsidizing their maintenance. To the present, $371-million was invested over those 18 years, leading the Council to the conclusion that it made little sense to repair buildings as empty mausoleums dedicated to the past, little used by the present generation.

"The issue has changed. Today we speak a lot more about finding uses for churches", explained Mr. Boucher, for the Council. Last year the Council altered its mandate reserved for churches remaining places of worship to assisting non-profit organizations, municipalities and private owners as well, involved in transforming former churches into useful locations for other social enterprises. The Council took an inventory in 2003, identifying 2,751 houses of worship, mostly Catholic churches. Some 400 have since closed, those numbers accelerating.

In Montreal's Rosemount, the former Eglise Saint-Eugene presents now as a community centre for new subsidized housing units built adjacent the church, for senior citizens. The Theatre Paradoxe in southwestern Montreal is located now within the Century-old Elgise Notre-Dame-du-Perpetuel-Secours. The church's exterior and its interior were largely preserved; the wood of the confessionals was used to make the bar and the nave is where concerts and conferences take place.

Handout   The Saint-Jude Espace Tonus gym and spa, built located in a former church. A healthy lifestyle “almost a religion for some people,” general manager Sonya Audrey Bonin says.
But then Christian Lepine was appointed Roman Catholic archbishop of Montreal in 2012, declaring a moratorium on the sale of churches. With that moratorium projects installing daycare facilities and community centres in closed churches were placed in suspension. Mr. Walhin, assistant to the vicar general, explains that the moratorium will remain in place until the archdiocese identifies its praishioners' needs and assesses the physical state of its 200 buildings.

A former French-Canadian church in Montreal, he points out last year was presented to a Catholic congregation of African origin, and renamed Notre-Dame d'Afrique. At Saint-Jude, where once Dominican brothers prayed and received the faithful, a new kind of community has emerged, one that charges membership of $200 monthly, perhaps somewhat resembling the weekly offering plates and tithing. The latter aided the faithful's souls; the former assures their recreational-health membership is in order.

According to one client in her 60s, joining Saint-Jude has meant the world to her: "Before, I went to mass on Sunday morning. Now I come to the Saint-Jude." Where previously she attended occasional mass she no longer feels the need to. "People don't go to church any more" said Marie-Claire Mayers, 60. "We have to find something to do with our heritage, or else they will all be demolished."

In their minds the new societal connection is to the stones-and-mortar of the saintly old churches, not so much the religious devotional faith that drove them to those churches and which dominated the Quebec way of life. The perishing soul was the first concern, aspiring to please god who in his divine pleasure would grant eternity to the faithful. Now, it seems, it is Mother Nature in the ascendancy, people taking matters into their own hands to prolong their survival.

Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec
Conseil du patrimoine religieux du QuébecThe nearly 100-year-old Église Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours before its transformation into a theatre and conference centre.

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