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The dilemma downtown churches face with dwindling congregations

12/20/2014 05:06 EST | Updated 02/18/2015 05:59 EST
Are you planning a visit to an old church during the Christmas season? Maybe you're a regular church goer or you might only set foot inside a religious sanctuary once a year.

However often you attend, administrators of downtown churches in St. John's say everyone should be concerned about the future of these historic buildings. Congregations are struggling with structural problems, exorbitant heating costs and fewer and fewer people in pews.

Between Patrick Street in the west end and King's Bridge Road in the east, there are nine churches. One church is Presbyterian, two are Anglican, two are Catholic and four are United Churches. St. Thomas's Anglican church is the oldest, built in 1836. The newest is Cochrane Street United, opened in 1915 during the First World War. 

Cochrane Street United Church

Rev. Miriam Bowlby says Cochrane Street United has had persistent leaks for almost a century.

"The person who does our archives told me that it had been leaking almost since the church building was built either 1917 or 1918 and so we've had a long problem of figuring out what exactly the right solution is to fixing the roof," she said.

Buckets of various sizes have been set up in the gallery to catch rainwater. In one corner, a child's swimming pool had been placed under a large sheet of plastic covering a leak in the ceiling. Ornately decorated plaster is soggy, paint is peeling off walls, and alongside beautiful stained glass windows are brown water stains on the ceiling.

Luckily, roofers have started repairs. The cost of the job is estimated to be between $80,000 and $100,000.  
Then, there's the cost of heat. Bowlby says keeping the church warm eats up about a third of the church's budget. The first three months of last winter were particularly challenging.

"I know we'd spent about $60,000 by March. So that's a lot for a small congregation to sustain over any kind of time period," she said.

Roman Catholic Basilica Cathedral

The winter of 2014 was also hard on the Roman Catholic Basilica of St. John the Baptist in St. John's. Father Charlie Kelly points to plaster bubbling out on both sides of the altar. 

"It caused horrific damage here in the sanctuary on both the east and the west sides ... the weather beat in through the windows and in through the mortar itself, a lot of the mortar between the stone which was put there a century-plus ago has given way," says Kelly.

The Basilica was consecrated in 1855. Kelly says repairs to the original stained glass are expensive. The church has 28 more windows that have to be releaded and rebuilt.

"There are six main stained glass [windows] behind the altar. They've already been done at about $17,000 a piece," he said.

Heating bills at the Basilica are on average $10,000 a month. The church recently spent $2 million dollars to upgrade to a geo-thermal system. Now, the electrical system needs an upgrade too. 

"That's a couple of million bucks just to work on that so when you add it up it's a real challenge and it's very, very difficult to meet the needs and the demands that are placed on us on daily basis, really," said Kelly. 

Dwindling Congregations

As upkeep costs rise for downtown churches in St. John's, the number of people attending church on a regular basis is way down, meaning a lot less money in collection plates.

George Parsons, the program coordinator at George Street United Church, was christened there and still attends a service every Sunday. 

He says long-time members are dying off and it's hard to draw new members in.

"We might have 20 or 30 christenings in a year, but very few of those people return to the church right, they come in they have their son or daughter christened and that's it, you normally don't see them anymore, which is not what it used to be ... but times change," he said.

Parsons said when he was a boy, there would be upwards of 600 people in church on Sunday. Now, an average Sunday only draws 80 people. 

Outreach

While congregations drop in size, many churches say the need for their outreach programs is steadily increasing.  
Downtown churches all collect food regularly for food banks. When they're not donating to food banks, many churches are providing free hot meals in the downtown where many needy people are living. 

George Street United Church has a free hot breakfast on Monday morning sponsored by Husky Energy. On Fridays, they serve lunch to about 120 people. Gower Street United Church has free lunch every Wednesday. 

Rev. Guy Matthews says if the buildings close, there will be a lot of social work that will be missed.

"I get people come to the door who are sent here from their counsellors from other government institutions who have no way to meet their needs, and they send them to us because they throw their hands in the air," Matthews said. 

"We, along with our other partners, do our very best to try and meet some of those needs. And I couldn't see overloading an already overloaded system, and that's not pushing the panic button, that's a statement on reality. The needs will not go away," 

Solutions

Many churches already rent out space during the week to day care centres, bands, dance groups and card players. All administrators are brainstorming to come up with new ways of generating revenue. 

Cochrane Street United is looking to the provincial government to turn part of its property into affordable housing. Rev. MiriamBowlby says the plan has injected new optimism into her congregation.

"The energy that has come from imagining a new future for this building has brought a new energy to me and the people working on it, so I have great hope that we'll be able to do something that helps us remain in the building, but also does something that is beneficial for the community," she said.

George Parsons says looking to other countries could provide new ideas. Parsons recently visited a church in Belfast with a dormer similar to the one at his church.

"They had the exterior of that converted and a shell built outside of glass, and it was converted into a restaurant and they had two floors of restaurant and a floor of kitchen preparation and so on, but it was a real classy-looking outfit and I'm sure it must have raised a lot of money for the church. It was still an active church," Parsons said.

Father Charlie Kelly of the Basilica says tourists could be a godsend for that church.

"The Basilica is number one on the tourist list, you know, and when you pick up 15,000 to 17,000 tourists a year, who profits? We don't. That has to be restructured," he said.

"I mean, it can bring us $50,000 to $100,000 a year, and whether you like it or not, there is a business dimension side to the church as well."

Bruce Templeton with St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church — The Kirk — thinks there needs to be a more concentrated focus on recent immigrants. He says churches could bolster their numbers by appealing to newcomers. 

"People from all over the world, we would love to have them to come and celebrate in this magnificent sanctuary and be part of this wonderful congregation," he said.

Templeton admits he doesn't have all the answers for struggling downtown churches. He is eager to listen to any suggestions, particularly from youth. 

"It isn't a question of the 70-and-80 year olds. The question, when we hand on the keys to future generations, is, 'Do they want the keys?'" 

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