An Old Church Gets Put to Good Use

St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba wasn’t doing so well a few years ago. The congregation was growing smaller and the church building always needed maintenance work:

St. Matthew’s Anglican Church (Ken Gigliotti – Winnipeg Free Press)

But now, the building has been converted — no pun intended — into the WestEnd Commons, a rental property for low-income families:

Work has begun to reshape St. Matthew’s into WestEnd Commons, a 25-unit housing unit. The rental apartments are intended for families and will range from one to four bedrooms. Tenants will include seniors, people with mental-health issues, new immigrants and First Nations families.

Families must have a combined income of less than $50,000. Manitoba Housing will subsidize 21 of the 25 units. A management company will look after the property.

“What this community needs is housing,” says Clarkson. “There’s quite a bit of bachelor accommodation, rooming houses; that sort of thing.”

The units will have full kitchens, private bathrooms, phone lines and cable. Those details aren’t taken for granted by anyone who lives in low-income housing.

WestEnd Commons is expected to be complete and fully occupied by February 2014.

It’s not just good for those families; it’s good for the city, too:

“Everybody in the city benefits if you bring the housing standard up in any part of the city,” [WEC board member Bob Clarkson] says. “There will be taxes paid on the residential portion of the building. This is about 25 units. It’s about Winnipeg.”

Compared to the alternatives, I’d say the church leaders did something beneficial for the community and genuinely helpful for the future residents. They didn’t just pack up and leave when the money dried out. Good for them.

(Thanks to Dorothy for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Annie

    This is a wonderful repurposing project.  Although it is most important that a real, tangible community need is being met, I also like the psychological growth.  Churches are considered sacred places by many.  To be able to turn it into housing where regular, human daily life will be conducted, illustrates that it is really just a building.

  • LesterBallard

    Hey, Pope Palpatine; you seeing this?

  • ReadsInTrees

    I have a dream to one day convert an abandoned church into a free childrens’ library and science discovery museum. I feel there would be something poetic about turning the steeple into a telescope platform.

    There is an old Catholic church up here in Lisbon Falls, Maine, which is currently used as a stained glass workshop, studio, and museum. On the top level of the museum is also an insect gallery created by the owner. Hundreds of beatles, moths, spiders, butterflies, etc, all on display, many preserved as artwork. If you ask, the owner will even take you out back and let you handle some of the live insects and arachnids that he has out back. We went there for my Bachelorette outing, so there’s pictures of me in my pink glittery sash covered with stick bugs or holding a tarantula. Way better use of the church, I think.

  • onamission5

    I would love to see this happen with the church by my house. The building is enormous– the size of a small, three story school house plus a big church– but the congregation doesn’t even fill half their parking lot on Sundays, and the (fenced off with barbedwire) playground only has kids on it maybe twice a year. They already lease out the lower floor to the county sherriff (seperation of church and state, anyone?) as an office, so it’s not like the building isn’t potentiall zoned multi-use already. That virtually empty, school-sized addition could house so many apartments!

    Side note, I have long wanted to fix up and live in an old church.

  • Philly Atheist

    Quite a few of the old smaller churches in the Philadelphia suburbs are closing.  Some townships are enabling them to be turned into condos, offices, or commercial spaces… others are struggling to do so (especially those with only street parking).  I’m impressed that people of all beliefs are interested in saving these buildings and re-purposing them. I’ve also seen quite a few Catholic church/school getting flipped into private schools and daycares.  

    Some of this is due to a megachurch migration (like big box retail) and some of it is due to people leaving their church habits.

  • karen

    My mother, a senior, lived in a similar housing situation.  It was also in Canada.  The seniors were scared to death to leave their units, as the people with mental health issues were frightening them and constantly bothering them. They would go off their meds and have  scary episodes in public spaces of the building, knock on residents doors screaming, blah blah blah. I am not faulting the people with the mental health issues, it is not there fault that they fall through the cracks and have trouble finding housing.  But housing seniors and children and those with mental health issues all together is not a good idea. People with mental health issues need to be taken care of properly.  Of course this is just coming from my Mum’s experience.

    • Richelle McCullough-

      Please, tell us more about how we should demonize and segregate the mentally ill. 

      • Annie

         I don’t think karen was trying to say that at all, and I think it is rather disingenuous of you to go there.   People with mental illness cover a huge spectrum, so it is hard and unfair to clump them all into one group.  Their needs vary.  Near my house, there is an apartment complex for people with mental illnesses.  I gave a woman a ride home from the store once, after I found her covered in leaves and on the ground.  When I asked if she needed help, she told me someone stole her cigarettes and then burned her with them.  She held her arms out for me to see, but there were no burns.  The woman was afraid and confused, and clearly needed more assistance in day-to-day living than she was being given.  Is it demonizing to recognize that not everyone just needs a roof over their head to live a normal life?  The idea of just shuttling people off to low-cost housing and giving them no support to navigate the world is, in my view, very cruel.

  • advancedatheist

    The quality of church construction seems to reflect ideological and class distinctions in some way. The Catholic Church has plenty of impoverished members even in developed countries where it has a presence, but historically it could gather the resources to build its structures to last for centuries, even in premodern economies. This church created durable architectural wealth, in other words, which we can repurpose towards secular uses as that church declines, so it has left us something of value after all.

    By contrast, in the U.S., Protestants from the working and lower middle classes tend to build gimcrack structures for their church activities. They probably can’t afford any better, and hey, Jesus will return soon any way. For example, Tulsans know that Oral Roberts built his university (ORU) in the 1960′s and 1970′s on the cheap, and its faux-Jetsons’ architecture deteriorated quickly and now needs constant maintenance which the current administration of the university can’t afford. Given that Oral built ORU as  a monument to his ego, since he has died and his son Richard got eased out control after a scandal, ORU doesn’t really have a reason to exist now. Yet most of those buildings wouldn’t merit repurposing towards secular uses, and instead deserve demolition in a rational world because of their poor construction and bad condition. Oral didn’t use his cult’s money to create long-term wealth, in other words. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/davydd.norris David Philip Norris

    They’ve been doing this for some time in Europe. I’m glad to see it’s starting to happen here too. Put those buildings to some real use!

  • Trickster Goddess

    When I lived in Vancouver in an earlier life, there was a quiet residential street a couple of blocks from me where there were 2 churches right across from each other. The two congregations got together and decided share one church building and have staggered service times with the Presbyterians at 9 am and the Methodists at 11. The other church was then torn down and replaced with subsidized housing.

  • Xeon2000

    Several years ago there was a temple in the old section of my city that was turned into a dance club. It was bad ass. The basement had a chill, lounge area with pool tables and often featured jazz/blues. The middle floor had the DJ’s featuring mostly techno dance, some nights live rock bands would perform on stage instead. There was also a mezzanine floor that circled around and overlooked the dance floor. Combined with the gothic architecture, it was awesome. They closed down though. :(

  • Oldfogey

    I can offer a curiously revered situation that might amuse. Some 30 years ago here in Wales, there was a fire in a small town that burned down both the chapel and the local pub next door.

    Pending the insurance rebuilding, both operations decided to move into and share a redundant fire station across the road. The pub used the downstairs (since it was open every day) and the chapel used the upstairs.

    The great thing was that efter the service, everybody could slide down the firemans pole straight into the bar!

  • Oldfogey

    Oops – reversed, not revered! slip of the finger or the brain?

  • Sue Blue

    There is an old Lutheran church in my town that was made over into apartments – unfortunately, not for low-income families.  Probably because of the 112-year-old building’s unique and beautiful architecture, original stained glass, open belfry, and scenic waterfront location, it was divided into 4 expensive condos.  Two blocks away is its 108-year-old rival, another even larger, very distinctive Lutheran church that is still a church, offering services in Norwegian and English.  It’s a huge white, wooden building with a classic steeple on a hill overlooking the town and harbor.  What a great apartment building it would be, but it’s also part of the town’s Norwegian cultural heritage.


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