A Hope and a Prayer for Places of Faith

S3E13 of The Conversation Piece podcast

Black and white photo of Natalie Bull over a template of The Conversation Piece podcast featuring a mic and outlines of other mics.

According to Statistics Canada, being a person of faith, or at least admitting to being a person of faith is becoming less popular. That might just be about the ebb and flow of our culture, and history may cycle again to make religion popular again, but in the meantime, the places that were built at the height of “worship culture” sit in disrepair and worse. And according to Natalie Bull, that is sad for more than just those who worship there.

Welcome to the Conversation Piece.

Good evening. My name is Natalie Bull. I’m executive director of the National Trust for Canada. The National Trust is a charity that works with communities to save places that matter. And spirit of place is something that we talk about a lot. I would say that spirit of place is especially front and centre in sacred architecture and places of faith, whether they are gorgeous, elaborate Romanesque, revival piles like this one or mosques or synagogues, or the little white churches that I know from my childhood growing up in new Brunswick’s Bible belt. Most sacred architecture is a deliberate physical expression of the spiritual. Sometimes the very form of the building itself is a metaphor for the spiritual relationship. Designed to move us or still us, or fill us with awe. Even if you never darken the door, I would bet that you consider the places of faith in your neighbourhood to be prominent, cultural, social, and even spiritual landmarks.

But many thousands of those buildings are doomed. Society is changing, ageing congregations, dwindling dollars in the collection plate, and different ideas about spirituality and worship are taking their toll. In urban centres tiny congregations with massive properties are understandably tempted by development potential. Ottawa’s Beth Shalom synagogue was reportedly losing $200,000 a year when they finally sold their building to a developer for 15 million. Here in Toronto, Willowby Baptist, St. Joes Anglican, both demolished to build condos, Riverdale Presbyterian and Howard park Pentecostal converted to condos. Deer park United nearby is slated to become a sort of preserved ruin for its surrounding condo development.

Many more buildings have been lost converted to other uses or are in play. Quebec has been the canary in the coal mine, already far ahead of the rest of Canada in grappling with its massive collection of redundant religious buildings. The province, recognising the importance of those symbolic landmarks to their cultural identity, has already invested almost $300 million in everything from roofs to stained glass to organs, but the pace of closure and conversion is staggering. And the tsunami will only get bigger. Faith groups are the second largest real estate holder in Canada. Second, only to the government of Canada itself. We may be talking about more than 27,000 buildings, and it’s expected that at least 30% of them will be on the chopping block in the next few years.

So for heritage advocates, places of faith are front and centre on our list of species at risk, but is it any of our business?

I’ve been told that heritage types should stay out of this crisis, that a preoccupation with saving a church building is a form of idol worship. That the church is really its people, not the building. That makes sense on paper, but it really doesn’t square with the emotional turmoil that we see on the ground. And I’ll share two examples: in Newfoundland parishioners who were seeking heritage designation to protect the historic church by the sea, awoke one morning to find that the steeple had been hacked off and pulled down under cover of darkness. After a long and acrimonious tug of war with church officials, they finally lost the rest of the building earlier this year. And in Victoria Mines, Cape Breton locals are desperately fundraising against all odds to buy and repair their historic stone church, rather than see it demolished.

More than just landmarks, these buildings carry family memories and meaning and enrich the spiritual experience. And they matter to more than just the faithful; with their soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and space for other charities and nonprofits, places of faith are often invisible safety nets and de facto community centres. In rural Canada the church building may be the only game in town.

As a heritage advocate. I see this broader social impact as an important asset, even a bargaining chip, and I’m not alone. Preservationists in the us have already developed a way to quantify the value that congregations and their building contribute to society. The resulting dollar figure – aptly named the halo effect – typically comes in at many millions of dollars for a single urban congregation, because it helps tell a fulsome story of their value. It can provide congregations with a much more compelling case to attract funders and philanthropists.

So while shifting attitudes to spirituality may be a big factor putting these buildings at risk, a new take on their value to the wider community may offer a path to their salvation. If you’ll pardon the pun. the Toronto halo project is now adapting the valuation methodology for use in Canada. And there are already great examples out there. In fact, we’re meeting in one, I would say that the halo effect is alive and well here at Trinity St. Paul’s United church, the centre for faith, justice, and the arts. It’s upward spiral of financial sustainability and community service include a Baroque orchestra, a Montessori school, a middle Eastern language school, a powerful activist agenda, and much more.

Yes, well deserved. Even when a congregation chooses to move on, sale and redevelopment don’t have to be a death knell. While condos and climbing gyms may offer an easier business mode, what a blessing when a former place of faith can offer a sort of spirituality grounded in community: think community gardens, food hubs, farm markets, poverty alleviation, affordable housing, and more with, or without a denominational label. This reflection comes at a time when the field of heritage conservation itself is actively rethinking its purpose and returning to our roots as a social movement. I think heritage groups like mine can find new meaning in helping society come to terms with landmark faith buildings, using heritage as a tool to strengthen community. And the National Trust is blessed with a wonderful partner for this challenge, the organisation, Faith and the Common Good, that brings essential expertise in mission renewal and sustainability.

All that being said, I’m under no illusion and that we can actually turn the tide. There are huge numbers of buildings involved and a crippling burden of deferred maintenance. In some cases, there are complex histories and the need for reconciliation. But my hope is that faith groups and their communities, all of us will simply do our very best to make wise use of these sacred spaces that we’ve inherited from the past. And my prayer is that whenever possible they will be used in ways that help create resilient and sustainable communities with a powerful spirit of place. Thank you.

Natalie Bull is the Executive Director at The National Trust for Canada, and she spoke at The Walrus Talks Spirituality in 2016. And she’s just one of the over 800 speakers who have wheeled, walked, and web-cammed into our stages at The Walrus Talks. Our next event is coming up in January 2022 – The Walrus Talks INEQUALITY, a discussion about the growing wealth disparity is a crisis at home and abroad. How do we rebuild the global economy so that it serves us all? REGISTER today at thewalrus dot ca slash events.

Natalie Bull
Natalie Bull is the executive director of the charitable National Trust for Canada, part of a global network of organizations that protect and celebrate places that matter.