Why it matters 9,000 churches and religious spaces will close over next 10 years

A national charity that works to save old buildings estimates that 9,000 religious spaces in Canada will be lost in the next decade, roughly a third of all faith-owned buildings in the country. Kendra Fry, a project lead with Faith and the Common Good, tells us what we lose when churches close.

In Hamilton alone eight churches will close over the next five years, Fry says

Assumption church in Windsor closed in 2014 after 172 years. It is currently under renovation with the intention of returning it to regular use later this year. Officials there say mass attendance has been increasing in recent years. (Michael Evans/CBC News)
A national charity that works to save old buildings estimates that 9,000 religious spaces in Canada will be lost in the next decade, roughly a third of all faith-owned buildings in the country. Kendra Fry, a project lead with Faith and the Common Good, tells us what we lose when churches close.

According to one national heritage group, over the next ten years, 9,000 churches and other faith-owned buildings in Canada will be shutting down. 

National Trust for Canada regeneration project leader Robert Pajot says every community in the country is going to see old church buildings shuttered, sold off or demolished.

"Neighbourhoods are going to have multiple churches closing," Pajot said. "Some people qualify this as a crisis, and I kind of agree. It is going to hit everybody."

In many towns across Ontario, church isn't just the house of God, it's where the community gets together. Kendra Fry, a project lead with Faith and the Common Good, is working to find out who is using these faith spaces and what losing them might mean.

Fry spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about the church closures. She says that in Hamilton alone, eight churches will close over the next five years. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above.

Kendra Fry, project lead with Faith and the Common Good

(Kendra Fry)

If the pews are empty for Sunday mass hasn't the community spoken? Why does it matter if the church closes?

I think Canada is becoming increasingly secular. We don't attend religious services in the way that we used to. The reason it matters from my perspective is that these buildings have proven to be centres of community writ large, so they are homes to all kinds of not-for-profit and community groups that don't necessarily have anything to do with religion but have to do with the common good. If these faith buildings close then we lose those spaces for those kinds of activities.

What kind of non-religious activities take place in churches?

Pretty much everything you could imagine. Day cares, kid's activities, senior's activities, municipal voting stations, 12-step groups, meeting spaces — arts groups very often perform and rehearse out of faith buildings because of the acoustics.

What would it mean for people in towns and cities across the province if these churches and other faith spaces were to close? 

It's one more step in the increasing isolation between people. If you don't have a third place to gather, after your home and work, that is a safe place for everyone then people retreat to their houses where it's invite only how do you get to know your neighbours and connect with the people in your community and be part of something bigger?

Why is this happening? How did we get to this point?

If you follow the StatsCan data, you can see that since the late 1970s, early 1980s less and less Canadians attended faith services. I think, to some extent, that also has to do with the way families have changed. They're off at hockey and soccer and this and that and it's harder to have a set Sunday date to go somewhere. So, that happened slowly and then suddenly the congregation, there were very few of them and they were quite elderly and the amount of money they could contribute to the plate couldn't keep up these often very large and historic spaces. 

They are our marked places of home. Even if you don't go to faith services you go past the church and it has meaning to you as a thing of beauty, a way marker. It's impactful.

What is your group hoping to do about this problem?

Faith and the Common Good and the National Trust for Canada have this project, Regeneration Works, and we work with faith communities and the community at large to figure out what can be done in this situation. We do workshops. We're doing one in Kingston coming up on June 1st. We work with individual faith communities and community to talk about ways these spaces can be regenerated and kept for the community good if the faith community can no longer keep them themselves. 

What kind of funding is there available to sustain these churches?

Very little if it's a faith building owned by the faith community. The nature of the Canadian sacred secular divide is such that we don't fund faith buildings very much. There can sometimes be a little bit of Trillium Foundation (funding) if it's for things that are not religious in nature. Occasionally, there is funding around senior's programming and those kinds of things. In general there is not much out there. 

What do you think can be done to save some of these churches?

First we have to prove that it matters. That's why we are doing the survey. We're doing that so we can prove to municipal governments and funders that the impact of faith buildings closing is quite intense on the community at large. Then we can start to work with those groups who are interested in the question. One of our funders is the city of Toronto. They are interested in the question of what's happening. We need to be able to give data as a place to start so that we know what the impact will be. 


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