Churches disappearing at an alarming rate in Midtown
St. Matthew’s United is one of the latest congregations striving to keep its heritage
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