Postcard from Winnipeg

Bad weather and secular holidays do not make for strong church attendance. The combination of the two — such as New Year’s Eve and -30F temperatures — would often warrant cancellation of services.

The parishioners of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Canada, were not waylaid by the weather on Dec. 31. About 40 of them pushed through the biting cold to worship in what is now one of Winnipeg’s most unusual church buildings.

Winnipeg is loaded with Anglican churches, but St. Matthew’s stands out with an unusual history and an unconventional present. While the parish started as a house church in 1896, it eventually became a significant community center — perhaps evidenced by its location on St. Matthews Avenue in the St. Matthews neighborhood. (As communities grow, apostrophes sometimes fall by the wayside.) A building was constructed in 1913 at the church’s current location; it burned down in 1944. The current structure, dating from 1947, was built to hold 1,200 worshipers. The sanctuary was often full to standing room only, and the church was home of one of the city’s largest pipe organs.

By the 1960s, however, British-descended families began moving to the suburbs. Decline set in quickly, and the parish considered closing even then. Instead, it remained open, and new ministries and partnerships began to serve the changing neighborhood. The fortunes of the church, however, did not change, and by the start of the 21st century, the list of needed repairs was growing and income was shrinking. Endowments are atypical in the Anglican Church of Canada, and St. Matthew’s was no exception. The church faced a question familiar to many: How can a church keep mission and worship alive with resources that now seem more burden than gift?

In 2014, the parish answered that question with a radical construction project that turned a small portion of the massive church into a modern worship space. The rest of the building became affordable apartments and space for community organizations.

“It was obvious that we were a declining congregation here, and an aging one. And the upkeep of our building was using more than half of our budget,” Pat Stewart, a parishioner at St. Matthew’s who was involved with the transformation, told TLC during coffee hour at the church. “It was either close the doors or do something with the structure. We literally had stucco walls crumbling from leakage in the roof.”

Stewart said the church was able to pay for a new roof because it was hosting a ministry related to refugee relocation — a longstanding concern of St. Matthew’s in a neighborhood full of New Canadians. The ministry was in the basement and helped qualify the church for funding. “We got the roof funded by a foundation because we weren’t specifically just a Christian building. We were community oriented.”

While the presence of community mission helped secure a new roof, it raised another question: What would happen to such ministries if the church were permanently shuttered?

“One of the issues was, if St. Matthew’s eventually closed, that would mean all the organizations and ministries that use the basement would lose their space,” the Rev. Gwen McAllister, rector of St. Matthew’s, told TLC. McAllister began attending St. Matthew’s 15 years ago and was ordained a priest a year and a half ago. Her willingness to serve in a part-time position became a call to serve in what had been her home church.

She said the previous rector, the Rev. Cathy Campbell, brought to the parish a vision for turning the building into its current form. Campbell, now retired, was inspired by an example she had seen in Vancouver.

McAllister said the vision met a very specific need in the area. “There’s a real lack of affordable housing in the city, and especially in the downtown areas.”

The road to change was not always easy for St. Matthew’s. Stewart said letting go was a part of deciding. “We had to decide which windows to keep,” she said. “The organ was sold for parts.” The choir left, and a jazz musician was hired to help ease the transition from organ to piano. During construction, the church worshiped in a drop-in space in the basement, another source of stress.

“It was a long process,” McAllister said. “Some people were really heartbroken.” But when the congregation talked about it, the decision was to proceed.

“There’s maybe three who never really came to terms with it. All three are still members and still support the church and are part of keeping it going through their work as well as their money. Everybody pretty much came to the place where this is what we should do.”

The result: 26 apartments, including three- and four-bedroom units — another uphill battle, as government grants paid the same for one-bedroom units as for four. McAllister thinks, though, that the humility built by the transition has helped the congregation’s diversity. Younger people attend, as well as families from Burundi. Sudanese members were attending but now have their own worship service in Dinka, held on Sunday afternoons in the same space.

“The phrase I use is the pride gets broken in the churches. That pride of we’re a Christendom church, and we’re a force in society, and we’re respectable. That gets broken at some point when there’s not enough money and there’s not enough people and the kids and the grandkids aren’t coming.”

Then, McAllister said, the church can begin to change.

Change is still underway at St. Matthew’s. The “gargantuan” project, as McAllister put it, ended about three years ago. St. Matthew’s building and its missions are now secure. But the conversion project did not serve as a cure for all of the congregation’s ills. St. Matthew’s is still a church like so many others: trying to grow, trying to reach new people, and trying to balance the budget.

“Our deficit has stayed about the same — it wasn’t that it fixed our deficit problems,” McAllister said. The parish benefits from a high giving ratio, she said, and ministry can now function free from worry about the building. “And if eventually we close, things will keep happening in the building. It won’t be knocked down or turned into condos.”

McAllister said she thinks the congregation is just now recovering from the shock of the process. Now, parishioners are considering new ways to strengthen community, such as community lunches and children’s time during services. A group discussing The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone also attracted newcomers.

And more people in their 30s and 40s have started coming, taking pressure off of a few extremely dedicated and older members. Parishioners old and new are working together to figure out how to avoid “stepping on toes,” she said.

“We’re just starting to build up and figure out where we want to go.”

Matthew Townsend

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