God, coffee and free Wi-Fi: Calgary church to open cafe in sanctuary

A Calgary church plans to open a cafe in its sanctuary, even if it has to remove a few pews — as part of broader plans to connect with the community that include re-opening a restaurant and theatre space and hosting book launches and concerts.

Knox United minister hopes workers, residents will enjoy 'one of the best spaces' in downtown

Knox United Church invited a minister from England to Calgary to explain how he started a sanctuary cafe there. Now Knox United plans to do the same. (Marlene Hielema/Knox United Church)

A church in downtown Calgary is opening a cafe in its sanctuary so people can sip coffee under stained glass.

The historic Knox United Church at Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue is 105 years old — and now its council and congregation want to liven things up by adding new features, even if it means removing a few pews.

"We can hold 800 people and there aren't 800 people there on Sunday morning," Rev. Greg Glatz said Monday.

The cafe, set to open weekdays early next year, will offer free Wi-Fi. People will be able to bring their laptops and work in a co-working space in adjacent rooms, or sit in the pews to reflect, meditate or chat.

Knox United Church is opening a cafe with seating in its sanctuary. (Marlene Hielema/Knox United Church)

The church has a three-year plan to renovate an existing kitchen for community use, re-open a restaurant and theatre space and host book launches and small concerts.

"All the things that can happen in a space like that — and I think it's one of the best spaces in downtown Calgary," Glatz said.

This weekend, the church hosted a minister from England, who opened a sanctuary cafe for his congregation.

The Calgary minister spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray on Monday about what's in store for the parish.

Q: What are you doing?

A: I'm doing what I've been doing since I started working as a minister in 1993, which is help congregations reconnect with their communities. Churches sometimes become very internally focused. There's a lot going on inside of a church, and it takes a lot to run it.

But when we lose connection with our community, we kind of forget why we exist in the first place.

The historic Knox United Church is trying to grow its congregation by offering community space during the week. (Marlene Hielema/Knox United Church)

So opening up a sanctuary cafe, for example, which is one of our first projects, is a great way to connect with the downtown community, both the people working down there and the people living down there.

Because everybody drinks coffee and we have several thousand people go right by the building every day.

Many people think the building's closed, no longer open for business, that nothing happens in there.

Q: Big building, gorgeous building. Lots of places to put a coffee shop. Why would you put it in the sanctuary?

A: I think offering our best space to people is the primary motivation behind that.

What I found when I opened up a cafe in a similar church in Winnipeg: 100 years old, beautiful gorgeous building, lots of stained glass. We would have the cafe in another part of the building and then people would say, "I'd love to see the sanctuary."

That's the best space in the building. Anybody that finally gets in there goes, "This is amazing. I'd love to sit here and I'd love to work here. I'd love to have a conversation here."

So let's just get people into the best space.

Q: In a lot of faith communities, that's a reverential place. It's not a place you go in and make noise, certainly not pour coffee. You're kind of turning that upside down, aren't you?

A: Well, I think coffee's pretty holy, first of all. And I think actually as we've tried to figure out what is God about in this world — without getting overly religious — I think God is trying to bring people together.

Q: That's a very United Church thing to say.

A: Exactly, so United Church.

But we understand God's mission as connecting people to God, to each other, to themselves and to creation. And if that's true, then any kind of connecting that happens in that sanctuary is holy work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener