Church-flip­ping

Chapels re­born as cabarets, cheese plants and rock-star shrines

The Western Star - - FOCUS N STEPHENVIL­LE -

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.

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