Churches dis­ap­pear­ing at an alarm­ing rate in Mid­town

St. Matthew’s United is one of the lat­est con­gre­ga­tions striv­ing to keep its her­itage

North Toronto Post - - News - By Sa­man­tha Peksa

The once-boom­ing con­gre­ga­tion of St. Matthew’s United Church, on St. Clair Av­enue West, has been charged with a dif­fi­cult task: find a fi­nan­cial part­ner or even­tu­ally face clo­sure.

St. Matthew’s is not alone in its dilemma. Amal­ga­mated, dis­banded or de­com­mis­sioned, Protes­tant churches are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a wave of clo­sures across Toronto that has shown lit­tle sign of abat­ing. It is of­ten a sad re­al­ity for church­go­ers and com­mu­nity mem­bers, as the build­ings are also used for pub­lic events and pro­gram­ming.

Many churches are beau­ti­ful struc­tures, with his­tory dat­ing back to the late 1800s. Some have been de­clared her­itage.

Deer Park United, for ex­am­ple, was forced to close in 2008 af­ter the con­gre­ga­tion could no longer af­ford to keep it run­ning. It is now be­ing repur­posed into a condo com­plex.

Sev­eral lo­cal con­gre­ga­tions have en­deav­oured to save their build­ings — pur­su­ing dif­fer­ent strate­gies to re­main afloat. Dav­isville’s Manor Road United re­cently sev­ered a por­tion of its land to sell to the city for a pub­lic park, whereas Bloor Street United has ven­tured to part­ner with a de­vel­oper to build a condominium over­top of its sanc­tu­ary in the An­nex.

When rev­erend Lau­ren Hodg­son first came to work at St. Matthew’s, the con­gre­ga­tion’s trea­surer told her the bud­get could only sus­tain the day-to­day op­er­a­tions of the church for the next three years. That was four years ago.

Over the past decade, the aging con­gre­ga­tion has ex­pe­ri­enced a dwin­dling mem­ber­ship, av­er­ag­ing about 70 peo­ple at Sun­day morn­ing ser­vice in a sanc­tu­ary built for 450.

But Rev. Hodg­son said that, de­spite cer­tain set­backs, the con­gre­ga­tion has no in­ten­tion of say­ing good­bye to its place of wor­ship.

The con­gre­ga­tion, with lo­cal coun­cil­lor Joe Mi­hevc’s sup­port, is vy­ing for a part­ner­ship with an arts or­ga­ni­za­tion to trans­form part of the church into a per­for­mance space sim­i­lar to the one com­mis­sioned by Tafel­musik at Trin­ity–St. Paul’s.

The build­ing — al­though tired and run­down — has be­come a thriv­ing com­mu­nity hub, teem­ing with lo­cal res­i­dents who fre­quent the church for many of the com­mu­nity-based pro­grams it of­fers.

The church holds post-natal yoga classes, leases artist stu­dios, shares its gym for fenc­ing lessons and has an out­door play area for its nurs­ery. It also runs an Out of the Cold pro­gram that many have come to rely on, and Wy­ch­wood Open Door op­er­ates in the base­ment.

Coun. Mi­hevc has ap­plauded their “com­mu­nity-based ap­proach” to breathe new life into their build­ing.

A few blocks east of St. Matthew’s sits what was once Wy­ch­wood-Daven­port Pres­by­te­rian Church. De­com­mis­sioned in April 2014 and now shut­tered, a nine-storey condominium has been pro­posed to take its place. The con­gre­ga­tion now wor­ships at a se­niors’ res­i­dence next door to St. Matthew’s.

Al­though the re­al­ity hits close to home, Rev. Hodg­son re­mains op­ti­mistic that they will find a suit­able so­lu­tion be­fore the church’s time runs out.

“What’s great about St. Matthew’s is they’re dar­ing to ask the ques­tion in a re­spon­si­ble way now while still an ac­tive con­gre­ga­tion,” noted Coun. Mi­hevc.

“Rather than at some pos­si­ble fu­ture mo­ment when they might not be able to.”

Rev­erend Lau­ren Hodg­son in­side the sanc­tu­ary of St. Matthew’s United

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