Chapels reborn as cabarets, cheese plants and rock-star shrines
Night peering through the stained-glass windows, the dancer preens like a burlesque black swan at what was once the Mackenzie Memorial Gospel Church in Stratford, Ont.
It’s the SIN Burlesque Erotic Cabaret at the Revival House, and the hall known as “the sanctuary” is packed to the refurbished pews.
In a sultry feathered fan dance, the performer sheds her avian-inspired leather getup, tufts of plumage falling to the floor, until all that remains is downy lingerie.
This playful tension between the sacred and the sensuous is one of the selling points of the Revival House, said Rob Wigan, who co-owns the cathedralturned-venue with his wife.
“We’re kind of playing off that contradiction,” said Wigan. “I often wonder if somebody is having too good of a time, would they look up and think, ‘Uh oh. I don’t know if I should be doing this in here.”’
The cultural destination is one of scores of shuttered churches across the country that have been resurrected as public monuments to secular devotions ranging from cheese making to rock ‘n’ roll idolatry.
According to the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre, roughly one-in-four Canadian adults surveyed said they attended religious services at least once a month in 2010, a drop of 16 percentage points over 25 years.
While experts say these ministerial makeovers reflect Canada’s shrinking and shifting congregations, Wigan insisted that the 19th-century Gothic cathedral has retained many of its soul-fulfilling functions in its current incarnation.
Rather than offering communion, he said the venue fosters spiritual connections through communal experiences, playing host to glitter-spackled drag shows, wedding bashes for big-city brides and pre-theatre cocktails at its bar backed by dark-wood organ pipes.
“Part of our story is bringing that element of community back to this beautiful place of worship, and place of gathering that kind of lost its touch,” he said. “There’s a spiritual element to it without it being incredibly religious.”
Roman Panchyshyn, owner of Wild Planet Music in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village, has a more irreverent take on his business’s hallowed heritage.
The sprawling store is a retail shrine to Panchyshyn’s rock-star idols, lined with rows upon rows of records and blasphemous musical memorabilia, including a T-shirt that reads: “Smile, Satan loves you.”
“It’s a place of worship, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll worship rather than religious,” said Panchyshyn. “If people have disapproved, it’s been nothing harsh ... because I’d have to send them to confession.
“You’re being watched in here by Axl Rose, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.”
The Theatre Paradoxe, formerly the Notre-Dame-du-Perpetuel-Secours in southwest Montreal, boasts an eclectic events calendar, renting out space for wrestling showdowns, crucifix-themed kink parties and recovery sessions from the Burning Man desert cultural retreat.
But for director Gerald StGeorges, these off-kilter affairs serve to fund what he sees as the theatre’s higher mission: providing at-risk youth with technical theatre training to help keep them off the streets and in the workforce.
“We do the same work the church did before in the sense that it’s for the community,” said St-Georges. “I don’t think we need to take the church’s place, I just think we keep doing the best side of the church in the way of helping people.”
According to the Quebec Religious Heritage Council, 547 churches in the province have been closed, sold or transformed as of April. The provincial government has allocated $15 million in funding for restoration projects this fiscal year.
Church-flippers have turned this towering real estate into high-wire enterprises like a rock-climbing gym in Sherbrooke, a circus school in Limoilou and an indoor “vertical farming” startup in SaintPacome.
In Ontario, only half of an estimated 12,000 historically religious properties still serve as places of worship, according to provincial heritage officials.