Canada 2017 Future Now

Let's revive empty churches as vibrant community hubs

'Without intervention, these prolific works of architecture will die slowly, but surely.'

December 08, 2017

The parvis in front of Saint-Charles de Limoilou, built in 1897, hosts an improv show to highlight the beauty of the church last summer. (Espaces d'initiatives)
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Who among us is living like a person ahead of their time? And what might Canada need to do to catch up with them? Future Now is a series that features individuals modelling their version of the Canadian future … today. 

Édouard-Julien Blanchet is part of a citizens' group that would like to see Quebec's vacant church properties lovingly preserved and reborn. 

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Saint-Charles de Limoilou's church has been closed to the public since 2012 — left to slowly crumble, like many other once-thriving Quebec City churches. 

I'm part of a small group of citizens working to save Saint-Charles, the oldest church in Limoilou. In this dynamic and innovative neighbourhood in Quebec City, the church is a place of memory for several residents.

Since 2015, I have been involved with Espaces d'initiatives, a citizen collective looking to build a new and secular community meeting place in the church. Concerned with the future of this heritage building, our small group built a whole conversion project to protect and enhance the church and its memory.

The church clearly contains the history of the neighbourhood and has evolved with it through the years.

Our vision was clear from the beginning: transform the church into a space for dialogue, open to anyone who wants to participate in building a better society.

The whole idea started from a conviction shared by all the members of our group: we can't let anyone demolish Saint-Charles.

The church clearly contains the history of the neighbourhood and has evolved with it through the years. Built in 1897, Saint-Charles was rebuilt twice after two fires, thanks to citizen donations. It is a symbol of the will and perseverance of a whole working-class community and of Capuchin brothers — the religious community that took care of the parish and of the church for several decades.

Reinventing community space

Saint-Charles' parvis has also been transformed into a communal garden to bring awareness to agricultural issues. (Espaces d'initiatives)

The case of our church is far from exceptional.

It is no secret that since the 1970s, the Catholic Church has been losing more and more membership. Now several empty churches are closing.

Often reluctantly, parishes are obliged to close and sell these beautiful buildings. Without intervention, these prolific works of architecture will die slowly, but surely. The whole situation raises an important and delicate question: what to do now with these unused buildings that require a lot of investment?

To be relevant, these places need to provide services to the community while offering a meeting space for citizens and social innovators.

Even though religious faith has lost its past importance for many, we believe that church buildings themselves can still be used to respond to crucial community needs: conferences, historic expositions, co-working spaces, concerts and,  most importantly, social action research. These are the ideals that shape our Laboratory of Social Innovation project, which will soon take place in the heart of the church!

We believe that church buildings themselves can still be used to respond to crucial community needs.

Our project responds to one major concern that has been identified in the past two years through citizen consultations and mobilization activities.

Limoilou and Quebec City — like many places across the country — need an innovative and dynamic place of exchange and creation to ensure social and urban progress.

A few dedicated citizens

To bring the community together in support of the church and it's space, the parvis hosted free swing dance lessons and some 50 other activities over the summer. (Espaces d'initiatives)

Through Espaces d'initiatives, I've learned that taking back and transforming churches and other historic buildings can be a rather complex and difficult project for a collective of citizens.

It's usually municipalities or real estate promoters that take the reins of those kind of initiatives. Nevertheless, we truly believe that citizens have power and can make a difference in their environment.

Churches are expensive buildings and it takes profitable activities to keep them open and safe.

We hope to inspire more Canadians by demonstrating that citizen initiative is always possible. Despite ambient social inertia, we are learning that innovation and citizen involvement can shape and transform our communities and our urban spaces.

One of the main issues we still face is money. Churches are expensive buildings and it takes profitable activities to keep them open and safe.

Since the beginning, we have been working to diversify our sources of income to make sure the project is realistic and sustainable but also to respond to the different needs of the community. For now, our collective draws its strength from the commitment and willingness of volunteers.

To stay inspired, we look to all the impressive ongoing urban and social projects that already exist.

Salon 1861, an inspiration to Espaces d'initiatives, is a church building that dates back to 1861. Formerly St. Joseph’s Church, today the building plays host to a variety of community events. (Le Salon 1861)

For instance Salon 1861Sainte-Brigide community and cultural centre, Bâtiment 7 and the Center for Social Innovation in Toronto. Many project leaders have been generous with their time and knowledge, helping our little team.

We've already put a lot of work and energy into our dream and we will continue to do so.

More than ever, we need citizens involved in their communities to shape inspiring projects for future societies!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Édouard-Julien Blanchet

Édouard-Julien Blanchet is one of the founders of Espaces d'initiatives, created in 2015. He holds a master's degree in Anthropology and is very involved in Quebec City. He is currently coordinating Espaces d'initiatives.