Upon This Rock I Will Build My Condominium

It’s been a very wordy, theory-laden week with all of this talk of progress and history, so I thought I’d end the week with something light: a post about religion. Kidding! Not actually religion, per se, but the visual effects of religion in our cities: churches.

Churches are such a common part of the cityscape that I doubt many of us even notice them. And yet it’s hard not to notice that as more and more condos go up (especially here in Toronto where it seems every spot of vacant or ‘underutilized’ land has been co-opted for another residential building) they are the last bastions of low-level architecture. They strike a stark, and beautiful, contrast to the glass and concrete boxes around them. They are often stunning buildings with the appropriate amount of age-grime to make me really interested. And they are a common visual reminder of the place that religion used to hold in this city, and country generally. There is a church on almost every corner (indeed, there are almost as many as there are Tim Hortons), but they do not reflect the city as it is today. Most are Anglican, but with only about 7% of the city population followers of that church (and more arriving every day with a different religion entirely, or none at all), many sit empty most of the time.

Bloor Street in Toronto. I know there's a church in there somewhere...

Quite frankly, it seems miraculous to me that more churches aren’t torn down. Why aren’t they? Is it that there is a great public attachment to historic places of worship, even if they are barely frequented anymore? Toronto is not so hesitant to tear down other older buildings to make way for the new. Or are churches still relevant in some way? And will they continue to be? I’ve certainly never seen a new one being built, so they must be accommodating the changing needs of the city as is.

Ah, yes. There it is!

Churches have actually adapted fairly well, if one considers that they are not only there to shepherd the flock toward redemption/holiness, but also to serve as the space in which communities come together. Some have continued to have services during the week for the few who still attend them, though many only host them now on Sundays. One Lutheran church near me offers services in German, Latvian and Korean in an attempt to bolster its numbers, but the majority of activities attempt to build communities in other ways. Many now offer ESL training, yoga classes, day care, or basketball during the week, which certainly serves the second purpose well. And why not have your next corporate meeting in the chapel? Others now rent out the space to corporations that aren’t squeamish about the religious overtones and not concerned about strict objectivity or the separation of work and religion. (And who, after all, wouldn’t want to look at a crucifix during their next meeting about vendor selection? Would really liven things up.)

A break-out room at St. Paul’s on Bloor, the largest Anglican church in the diocese. Personally I require fancy windows at all my corporate meetings.

Many churches have also turned to innovative architecture and development partnerships to preserve their land. Consider the Church of the Redeemer, which has been all but eaten by a Four Seasons Hotel. Why not just build your building around a church? Redeemer has also adapted in other ways: it now hosts rock concerts as part of nuit blanche, as well as opening its doors to everyone the church would normally exclude. Very open-minded.

The Church of the Redeemer has managed to cling on to its space at one of Toronto's busiest corners...for now.

The spire of the Cathedral of St. James, Toronto’s oldest congregation, was once the dominant feature on the skyline, but now shares air space (and has sold some of its land to) the new and appropriately-titled Sp!re condominiums next door.

The Cathedral of St. James in the 1930s.

And today, with the Sp!re condos sharing the skyline.

Other churches have been converted directly into condos themselves, like the Victoria Lofts in the west end of the city, on what was once the West Toronto Presbyterian Church.

Site of the Victoria Lofts

It makes me wonder how much of a building’s purpose is tied up in its structure. Will churches always be churches in the popular imagination, even after many have been divided up into apartments, or rented out as generic corporate meeting rooms? What effect will this divvying up of public, communal space into private compartments have on city dwellers?

And how will churches adapt in future? Will they remain religious strongholds, or will their presence largely fade to one of historical significance? I suspect many of these questions will  be answered as Toronto, and Canada more broadly, decides what kind of identity it wants to have – as a nominally and historically Christian city/country, or a new “multicultural” one. In the meantime, consider a steeple for your next condo purchase – I hear they get great nighttime city views.

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