Hidden Toronto: inside six churches surviving the condo crunch

As the city is swept by a tsunami of condo and development projects, places of worship are using every strategy imaginable to remain open to all



Canada’s mainstream churches are in trouble. 

The United Church of Canada is closing churches at a rate of one a week – more than 400 in the last decade. And the Catholic church is in peril in rural areas and in Quebec, where 400 closed between 2003 and 2016. Anglican church membership is down from a peak of 1.36 million in 1964 to 642,000 in 2001 (the last year the church reported attendance). 

What’s the solution? In a city that’s being swept by a tsunami of renewal, the answer is often to close the church and turn a house of God into housing for whomever can afford it

These historic buildings are not just architectural landmarks, they are also institutions to the arts and myriad spiritual and social services the city does not provide.

In June 2018, Michael Wood Daly published the first phase of the Toronto Halo Project to measure the value of the city’s social infrastructure. 

The project posed the question, “If a congregation ceased to exist, what would it cost the municipality to replace the programs and services that congregation provides to its wider community?” 

Answer: $3.42 for every dollar a congregation spends. Contrary to the assertion that churches are granted a “free ride” because they are exempt from property tax, Daly found that the value of the services they provide is worth 11 to 12 times what they would pay in property tax. That’s the halo effect.

In Toronto, the halo effect is forcing every survival strategy imaginable on places of worship that are determined to remain open to all.

The six downtown churches that contributed to this article share two crucial assets: they’re proudly inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly and rich in rentable space.


St. Stephen-in-the-Fields of dreams 

The Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields (103 Bellevue) on College between Spadina and Bathurst was founded in 1857 by Colonel Robert Brittain Denison, and built north of his mansion that used to stand on the edge of Bellevue Square. Designed by Thomas Fuller, the same architect who designed the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, it was completed as an elegant “colonial gothic” church. It still is, despite being misshapen by fire and a series of alterations.  

While St. Stephen’s was being built, Colonel Denison began the sub-division of the fields around it for the building of houses for Irish and Scottish immigrants. After World War I, they were mostly replaced by Jewish and Italian migrants from the Toronto Ward. They added storefronts to their homes and created the “Jewish Market” that is now Kensington Market. New Canadians have continued to settle in the area ever since, most recently from Latin America and a wave from the Caribbean who are now essential members of St. Stephen’s congregation. 

More than 160 years after it was built, St. Stephen provides free Saturday and Sunday morning community breakfasts a Friday night drop-in weekly hot meals for volunteers with the Moss Park Safe Injection Site and a Sunday night soup kitchen. 

Reverend Maggie Helwig and a lay pastoral team provide spiritual support for people in crisis – in person or by phone – and visits to people in hospitals, shelters and homes. 

Sharing the space in St. Stephen’s are FreeChurch, “with a mission to be a light in our city,” and Generous Space Ministries, which holds meetings for LGBTQ+ people to “work together to dismantle fear, division and hostility at the intersection of faith, gender and sexuality.” Local Muslims who live in the neighborhood use the church for prayer space and Masjid Temple serves lunch to about 50 people, once a month.

Along with hosting book launches, concerts and conversations about social, theological and artistic topics, St. Stephen’s also supports community groups, including Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services, Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and the People’s Assembly on Climate Justice.

The Toronto Seed Library, whose head offices are located in the church, provides free organic and heritage seeds to community gardens, including the garden at the church’s south side and the pollinator garden on its north side. 

The church’s magnet effect? In 2018, thanks to Heritage Toronto, the Cutten Foundation and private donors, St. Stephen’s was able to commission Eve Guinan Glass and Design for the restoration of its east and south stained glass windows. The result is dazzling. 

But there are others, like U.S. church blogger David Virtue, who doubt that churches like St. Stephen’s, “who believe that brokering pansexuality into churches as a justice issue (plus a whole host of other social issues) is more important than bums in pews versus bums in the bed,” are on the right path.

In Toronto, he writes in The Rapidly Diminishing Anglican Church of Canada, “There are many examples of parishes established years ago that no longer fit their local community’s needs. The symptoms of this mismatch show up in declining Sunday attendance and shrinking financial resources. It can also be seen in the deterioration of buildings and church fabric.”

This is news to Helwig, who has seen attendance at St. Stephen’s grow every year since she’s arrived. 

“Churches cannot be divided along a simple binary of liberal and conservative. If the only thing we want is to have lots of people attending, we’d be better off being a football team.”


College Street United: a creative hotspot 

College Street United Church (452 College) was reconstructed in 1990, stripped to its tower and a pair of eight-storey wings containing 89 Channel Club condos added. Brian Liuey, a member of the church’s congregation, was the project’s architect.

College Street United has a regular congregation of only around 30 people, but it has turned itself into a cultural hot spot.

It shares its space with Faith Filipino Seventh-day Adventists and the Ponte de Graça United Church. Its services to the community include Understanding Our Neighbours, a speakers series about homelessness, mental illness, addiction and life after jail. There are community meals on Thursdays, a monthly market, maker workshops and celebrations of the Lunar New Year.

Its income is augmented by rents from vocal coach Tom Schilling, Xing Bang Fu and Simon-Sylvain Lalonde’s Xing Dance Theatre, William Shookhoff’s Opera by Request and Dorothy Avery’s Mother Knows Best Dog Obedience School. 

Reduced rents pay for meeting space used by social services that include Houselink and Mainstay supportive housing, the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association, Fred Victor Mental Health & Justice and the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic for women who experience abuse. 

What goes on inside College Street United is a mix of spiritual, social and creative vigour. 


Trinity St. Paul’s: jewel in Toronto’s halo

In the 1970s, Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church (427 Bloor West), had one of the largest congregations in Canada. By the 1990s it was beginning to wonder: “Where is our home?” 

But as its congregation shrank, demand for its space grew. Today the church makes room for more than 483 tenants (who rent for periods ranging from one hour to year-round). 

It’s an eclectic mix that includes Greenpeace, International Socialists, a Montessori daycare and school, Middle Eastern Language school, a Parkinson’s dance group, Latin and tango classes and bike advocate Hamish Wilson. 

In 2013-2015 the sanctuary was upgraded with improved seating and acoustics and named after the founder of Tafelmusik, Jeanne Lamon Hall. 

But the church is most closely identified with interfaith organization Faith & the Common Good through projects like Greening Sacred Spaces, and Regeneration Works: Places of Faith, all of which address the need to prepare for extreme weather resilience “and provide social justice in an age of climate change.”

Minister Cheri Di Novo, the former long-time NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park who became minister in 2018, says attendance at Trinity-St. Paul’s is increasing with a growing edge of millennials and LGBTQ people “hungry for spirituality.”


Bloor Street United: church and synagogue under one roof

When Bloor West (300 Bloor West) was widened in 1927, Bloor Street United lost its wedding steps. In 1954 its sanctuary was destroyed by fire. 

Today, with a regular attendance of 100-120 people for church services, the liberal, LGBTQ-affirming congregation led by Reverend Dr. Martha ter Kuile depends on donations, endowments and rent from its tenants to support the church’s Refugee Outreach Programme as well as a community café and monthly dinner. A grandmothers’ group works with the Stephen Lewis Foundation, assisting grandmothers who raise HIV orphans in Africa. The church also offers a yearly camping experience for Indigenous and non-Indigenous teenagers. That’s a lot for a church running on fumes, but Bloor Street United is no longer alone.

Enter The City Shul, founded in 2012 to serve the growing Jewish population around the University of Toronto. It’s a Reform congregation that includes Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, members of LGBTQ communities and people of different ethnicities exploring Judaism. 

In 2017 needing a larger space for worship, City Shul moved its Saturday services into Bloor Street United. For Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, “this real blessing feels like home.” 

For Bloor Street United this partnership is also a blessing – but it’s not enough. The time has come for bold action.

KPMB and ERA Architects are proposing a complete renovation of the church, including excavation for an underground parking. The sanctuary will then be rebuilt, smaller than at present and retaining elements of its original character. A 28-storey tower with 254 residential units will be built above and behind the church, with the first four storeys specialized for church and community use, providing more floor area than before.

There is some resistance to the plan in the community. The tower (in which three-quarters of the units will be two-bedroom) will be elegant, but some fear it will overwhelm the church and there is disappointment that the project will contain no below-market-rate housing. 

Still, it looks like the project will go ahead, set for completion in 2020. 


St. Luke’s: a hub for shared sacred spaces

St. Luke’s United Church (353 Sherbourne) is a magnificent Romanesque building with rugged masonry and stained-glass windows that showcase the wealth and status of a founding congregation now long gone. That loss has prompted outreach. 

St. Luke’s shares its space with Berea Seventh-day Adventists, Sheep Flock Korean Presbyterian and Filipino First Born Full Gospel. It is also the hub of Sharing Sacred Spaces, its partnership with local Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist as well as the Christian communities around Allan Gardens. In January there was a Saturday ecumenical service with Sacré-Cœur and Seventh-day Adventists, a first in the history of St. Luke’s. 

In addition to its sanctuary and chapel, St. Luke’s has rehearsal spaces used by several theatre companies including Hart House, Mixed Company and fu-GEN Theatre and a full-size gym that was once a bowling alley. A fencing club and a martial arts group train in the gymnasium. 

Scenes from Mariah Carey’s Glitter, The Boys and Baroness von Sketch were recorded here, but most lucrative was filming in St. Luke’s dystopian corridors for The Handmaid’s Tale.

What St. Luke’s earns from moviemakers is crucial but not enough – the church’s annual budget is close to $400,000. Maintenance of the 132-year-old church is a burden. Boilers date back to 1927, and electrical wiring to 1955. There are 33 roofs to take care of and all the responsibilities that come with owning a heritage building. 

In 2015 St. Luke’s and non-profit Options for Homes met with Cabbagetown South Residents’ Association about building a 25-storey tower with affordable condos on church property. There was an appreciation of the church’s needs but also misgivings about the number of bedrooms in the units and fear that a tall building would overwhelm St. Luke’s heritage landscape. Build lower? That would make development economically unfeasible. So the project is stalled, but the church survives.


We are All Saints

All Saints Community Centre-Church (315 Dundas East) has been a community fixture at Sherbourne and Dundas since the 19th century.

The late Victorian masterpiece with polychrome brickwork, hammer beam roof, stencil glass is also home to the oldest surviving stained glass studio in North America. In the church’s early days, the sanctuary with seats for more than 800 was inadequate for services, which overflowed into Allan Gardens during summer Sunday evenings. All Saints had two Sunday schools then and was able to support missions in the Arctic and abroad. 

In 1903 Arthur Baldwin Hall with a gymnasium was erected between the church and its 500-pupil school, but All Saints’ decades of prosperity did not last. By 1912 families were moving to the suburbs and being replaced by a more transient population that lived in homes converted to rooming houses. That economic decline was compounded by the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployed people moved into the area. 

When the economy picked up after the Second World War, casual labourers moved into the rooming houses. By the 1960s the area around All Saints was one of the city’s poorest. It still is. 

In 1970 Arthur Baldwin Hall became a Friendship Centre for roomers, with the Dundas Day Centre run by the Queen Street Mental Health Hospital (now CAMH). In 1972, part of the nave was partitioned off to create the Open Door Centre, a “parlour” for homeless people. By 1982, up to 200 homeless men and women were sleeping on the floor of the church most nights. In 1986 Drina Joubert froze to death across the street. This led to a campaign that resulted in the building of 3,000 units of social housing for single adults, 61 of them in All Saints Homes for Tomorrow Society, a six-storey block behind the church. 

All Saints’ neighbourhood is gentrifying, but that has yet to bring prosperity to the church, where new homeowners in the neighbourhood find its presence uncomfortable. 

In spite of gentrification, All Saints is still needed. There’s worship, led by Reverend Alison Falby, on Sundays, song and bible study on Thursday mornings, a Sex Workers’ Breakfast on Fridays, and a drop-in from Monday through Thursday. 

People still sleep on the floor, as many as 100 on winter nights and some during the day who find it hard or impossible to sleep at night on the street or in shelters. Now All Saints has joined St. Stephen’s in the struggle to save the safe injection sites at St. Stephen’s Community House and Street Health on Dundas East that the provincial government has defunded. 

Reverend Falby describes the decision as “disastrous for our community, especially women.” 

Amazing grace, for some of the city’s neediest people, in an amazing place. Halo effect or society’s moral compass? Who can tell the difference?

@nowtoronto

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