When the Rev. Cathy Campbell became rector at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Man., the building was “a complete mess.”
“The rain was coming in the roof, you could put your foot through the floor in the basement. There was black mould. The choice after the first year became clear to me: either close it or renew it,” she says.
The church had been in the neighbourhood for a century, and the building—which was rebuilt after a fire—since 1947. What drew Campbell to the church were its community programs and commitment to its neighbourhood, a sense that “we’ve been here for 100 years, we’re going to be here for 100 more,” she says.
Campbell describes the West End as a “transitional neighbourhood,” just outside Winnipeg’s core but removed from the suburbs, one of the areas of the city with higher rates of crime and violence.
Campbell didn’t want the church to become a derelict building doing nothing for the community. The church decided to put the space to better use as affordable housing units, something the neighbourhood sorely needed.
Today, the large stone church that once held up to 1,200 parishioners is now called the WestEnd Commons. It contains 26 units of affordable housing, including six accessible units, and a neighbourhood resource centre in the basement. Four different congregations worship in the building, and several not-for-profit organizations rent out space.
While the church owns the building, the WestEnd Commons is a “revenue-neutral project,” Campbell says. It is leased for a dollar to St. Matthew’s Housing, Inc., a not-for-profit, non-faith-based organization that manages the building. Community members, along with a mix of church members from St. Matthew’s and another church in the building, sit on its board.
St. Matthew’s, which today averages about 35 congregants on Sundays, is now a tenant in its own building. The church meets in a beautiful little sanctuary that incorporates elements of the original church building.
“There’s a certain amount of grieving to be done in losing the beautiful space that’s had so much meaning, but we did actually salvage a lot and bring it into this small space, which makes a huge difference,” says the Rev. Gwen McAllister, who has been rector of St. Matthew’s for the past three years. “It feels like home.”
Still, retrofitting the old building has had its drawbacks. “I would have had a hard time agreeing to…the loss of the whole building, because it seems so wasteful. But as it has turned out, doing that, rebuilding on the [land] to make a space that had all the things we wanted…would have been a much more affordable project,” says McAllister. The costs of upkeep for plumbing and electrical work have threatened the sustainability of the project, she says.
On the upside, a “great community” has grown on the housing side. “Community has happened,” with the help of an on-site staff member, the community connector, who “gets people together, creates a social atmosphere,” she says.
If a small, committed congregation like St. Matthew’s can pull together an $8.5 million project, says Campbell, so can others. “It’s worth dreaming, it’s worth doing, and we can do it.”
“For people to see that churches are willing to put their resources towards caring for the neighbourhood, I think it’s really important to have that happen,” says McAllister. “I’m thinking about this theologically, actually, thinking about how we want to cling to the building.
“But buildings never last. They never last. They always have to be redone at some point, there always have to be changes.”