Dwindling congregations force Winnipeg faith groups to re-imagine roles in community

Membership in some of Canada's churches is shrinking — and it likely has nothing to do with uncomfortable hardwood pews.

Sects of Christianity, Judaism shrinking as Muslim, Sikh faiths see surge associated with immigration

All Saints Anglican Church is building an apartment complex on its property that will include affordable housing units. It's one way the church is adapting to a changing community and its changing role within it. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Membership in some of Canada's churches is shrinking — and it likely has nothing to do with uncomfortable hardwood pews.

"Thirty years ago, we probably had 300 families," said Sandi Howell, a volunteer with Crescent Fort Rouge United Church, located in Osborne Village on Wardlaw Avenue. 

"Today, we have 168 active members." 

That local trend in Howell's United Church is also reflected at the national level, including in a November 2019 report commissioned by the Anglican Church of Canada. 

The report found there were 1.3 million members in the Anglican Church of Canada in 1961, just under 642,000 in 2001 and about 357,000 in 2017. The way things are going, there may be no members of the Anglican Church left in the country by 2040, the report estimates.

Meanwhile, research by Reginald Bibby, sociology professor at Lethbridge University and leading expert on the state of religion in Canada, shows similar patterns of decline:

The Sikh and Muslim communities appear to be bucking that trend, but religious service attendance is declining within Christian and Jewish communities in Canada.

Facing significant drops in attendance, local religious leaders are finding ways to modernize worship spaces and revamp service. 

Opening up

Howell said there have been efforts at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church to change with the times and open up the church to the broader community. 

The main focus, she says, isn't on how to get people into the pews on Sunday. Howell said the question is how much of the building is being used, and how to make it useful to others. 

Crescent Fort Rouge United Church has been used for secular events like concerts, music festivals and choir performances.

Howell said the decision to use the church as a venue to promote the arts was made by consulting the congregation and community members. 

Redefining 'what we were'

The Shaarey Zedek Synagogue has experienced a recent bump in attendance due to significant changes in the way services are run and the social values being promoted.

"Due to decreasing attendance, about five or six years ago, we tried to redefine what we were, who we are, and where we want to be," said Ian Staniloff, executive director of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.

Shaarey Zedek Synagogue was founded in Winnipeg in 1880 and moved into its modernist home on Wellington Crescent in 1950. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

Younger clergy explain things in ways that are more accessible to some members of the synagogue, said Staniloff, and the shorter services and incorporation of more music make the services more engaging.

Staniloff said his synagogue has also made efforts to better reflect contemporary social values. 

"We have performed gay marriages here, we have an interfaith [cemetery]."

Rising up

Another place of worship is diversifying its role and expanding its footprint in the community.

Construction on the apartment complex behind All Saints Anglican Church will continue through the winter. (Travis Golby/CBC)

All Saints Anglican Church, located kitty corner to the Manitoba Legislature grounds on Broadway, is building an apartment block on its property. 

Brent Neumann, rector of All Saints' Anglican Church, said the church has faced financial challenges and a main goal of the apartment project is to generate revenue.

But beyond that, he said, the initiative is rooted in a desire to remain relevant in a changing neighborhood. 

In the past, All Saints Church has worked closely with Agape Table, a charity that has provided food for people struggling with homelessness for about 30 years. 

A woman pauses with her belongings in a grocery cart in front of All Saints Anglican Church during the summer of 2018. (Elisha Dacey/CBC)

That focus on helping those living on the streets in the surrounding neighbourhood was top of mind when considering building the apartment complex, Neumann said, asking "what's the best way we need to be working in West Broadway?" 

Last year, a homeless encampment sprouted up on church grounds. 

That same site is now occupied by construction crews working on the apartment complex.

The church consulted disability organizations during the planning stages. A direct result of that consultation is that 30 per cent of the units will be accessible — all the suites will be designed so they can easily be altered for accessibility. 

Construction crews work away on the apartment complex at All Saints Anglican Church in West Broadway, which will feature market and affordable units. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The apartment building will also have a mix of market-value and affordable units, which will be indistinguishable from each other.

"The income we raise in the market rates will be used to offset the affordable rates," Neumann said.   

The goal is to have the apartment project wrapped up by June 2021. 

Bucking the trend

Not all faith groups are experiencing declines on the Prairies.

Tasneem Vali, a volunteer with the Manitoba Islamic Association, said there has been a significant increase in mosque attendance in recent years. 

"Many people settled here in the 1960s, and their families have grown," said Vali. 

Two years ago, Canada accepted an influx of Muslim immigrants, Vali said, and youth engagement has been in focus ever since.

Tasneem Vali is a volunteer with the Manitoba Islamic Association. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

The Grand Mosque on Waverley Avenue, which functions as the headquarters for the Manitoba Islamic Association, has tried to meet the needs of the growing local community and youth. 

Vali said The Grand Mosque acts as a community centre — hosting sports nights and other activities designed to engage youth — and volunteers run summer camps where young people can learn about a variety of cultural groups. 

Sometimes the youth and older generations have conflicts over shared space, but Vali said there aren't usually conflicts over social values. 

"I believe what it is, is a willingness for people to listen and learn from each other," said Vali. 

"I think the older generation wants the younger generation to come to the mosque and the community centre, so they are willing to listen, change and adapt."

'Huge growth'

As with the growing Muslim population, the Sikh community is also expanding in Manitoba.

"Over the last 10-to-15 years, we've seen a huge growth in attendance, primarily due to immigration," said Jasdeep Devgan, vice-president of the Sikh Society of Manitoba. 

Jasdeep Devgan is the vice-president of the Sikh Society of Manitoba. (Submitted by Jasdeep Devgan)

Devgan said the daily programs run through the Sikh Society of Manitoba provide flexibility so people have more options of when they can go to worship. 

Its place of worship, or gurdwara, is located on Mollard Road near the northern outskirts of Winnipeg, where the society operates a school with dedicated volunteers who teach youth about the faith, language and more. 

"It's something that's operated at this society — kind of on-and-off over the last several decades — but over the last 10 years, we've had dedicated volunteers who have put a lot of heart and passion into this school," said Devgan. 

In 1983, members of Winnipeg's Sikh community broke ground at the site of their current gurdwara, or house of worship, on Mollard Road. (Submitted by Jasdeep Devgan)

Devgan, the first Canadian-born member of the board of directors and the youngest to hold his position with the society, said there is a strong emphasis on embracing youth and young adults within Winnipeg's Sikh community.

"This is the first time in a 50-year history that we've had a young vice-president," he said.

"If that's not an embrace of our youth, I don't know what is. "

Howell can get behind that sentiment.

Her church may not be seeing the same surge as the Muslim and Sikh places of worship in Manitoba, but Howell said one thing adherents across religious groups can likely agree on is that a focus on inclusivity, social justice and building community is the way forward.


Erika Rodeck


Erika Rodeck is a researcher with CBC Manitoba. She is part of the 2019 CBC Abilicrew Placements for Excellence (CAPE) cohort — a group of Canadians with disabilities who have been hired for three-month internships. She graduated from the University of Winnipeg this spring with a bachelor's degree in Conflict Resolution Studies.