How one Toronto church is beating the odds

In 2013, Roncesvalles United Church faced the prospect of closure — so it came up with a plan to radically redefine “how we do God”
By Karen Black - Published on Feb 03, 2020
Roncesvalles United Church, built in 1928, is a hub of secular and spiritual community life in Toronto’s west end. (google.com)

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For about 50 years, the fellowship room at Toronto’s Roncesvalles United Church was where members of the congregation gathered to sip coffee and tea and socialize after Sunday service. Now it’s where dozens of Roncesvalles locals do pay-what-you-can yoga on Sunday mornings.

They are just some of the hundreds of people who show up every week at the church in the city’s west end — not to sit in the pews and worship, but to do Zumba in the gym, practise shiatsu in the Sunday school, or shop at the flea market in the parking lot.

The diverse activities on offer at 240 Roncesvalles Avenue are the result of the difficult decision church members were faced with in 2013 — close, amalgamate, or radically transform the religious institution. The South West Presbytery (the governing body then responsible for congregations in the southwest region of the GTA) was in favour of closing it down. But, after investigating the options, the 40-member congregation chose the third one and put together a plan, and the presbytery changed its mind. Since then, the church has both rented out and donated as much of the 35,000-square-foot space as possible for a wide range of community uses.

The Sunday school, which once accommodated 900 kids a week, is now rented to the Village Healing Centre, a hub of mental-health and other wellness practitioners that offers affordable rates. (The Sunday school now occupies a room on the ground floor.) “Everybody who rents here pays less for rent than they would anywhere else,” says church member Sara Downing, who runs the centre. “And then they are asked to set their [fees] at the lower end of the market value or have some sliding-scale spots.”

Roncesvalles United isn’t the only congregation to deal with such challenges. Churches across Canada have been struggling with shrinking memberships and increasing costs for building maintenance. The United Church of Canada is expecting to shutter 50 churches in 2020, according to its information and statistics coordinator, Susan Jackson. Roncesvalles United is beating the odds, says its minister, the Reverend Anne Hines, by radically redefining “how we do God.”

Renting out space is nothing new for struggling churches, but Roncesvalles United’s approach goes beyond that, she says: “[The tenants] are not here paying to allow us to do our mission. They are our mission.”

And not everyone pays for space. When the church was approached by Not Just Tourists, a group of twentysomethings who needed storage space for suitcases of medical supplies destined for developing countries, Hines invited them to use the sanctuary. The church is now the Toronto destination for travellers looking to pick up suitcases of supplies on their way to vacation spots, such as Cuba, for delivery to medical clinics in need. Seventy-five people show up at the church each week to help sort and pack.

What money the congregation does make — through such tenants as Boomerang Pilates, the Artful Child, and children’s theatre and sports groups — has allowed it to keep a full-time minister. It’s also gone toward maintaining the sprawling 92-year-old building and making it useful and accessible for the community. “Our carpets are awful, and our walls are cracked, but we have a new accessibility ramp,” says Hines.

Hines recently invited artist Philip Cote, known for his murals depicting Indigenous creation stories, to the church to discuss a work for the sanctuary wall. “He said, ‘So you want to commission me to paint something [in particular],’” Hines remembers. “And I said, ‘No, I want to give you money, and you paint whatever you want.’” The important thing, Hines says, is that “whatever sacred stories Philip chooses are going to be up on these walls right next to our stained-glass windows. So they will have equal primacy.”

She concedes that some members have left the church because they feel it’s become too secular, but she adds that, while the number of people sitting in pews may not be growing, “the ownership of this church in the community definitely is.”

One of the biggest operations at Roncesvalles United is a weekly Dinner With Dignity event, which attracts 150 people. What started out as a simple soup kitchen now involves a buffet complete with fresh fruit, yoghurt, and espresso. Matthew Turvey says he comes here every week and brings friends because, “on the food circuit in Toronto, this place goes above and beyond. And they give you containers so you can bring food home.” Turvey says that he’s on a limited budget, so buying groceries is a luxury.

Last year, donations to the church topped $200,000 for the first time in its history. Former members of the presbytery (which has since been merged into a new governance structure) “now come here to see how we do things,” says Hines. On one recent tour, she says, “We were walking through the church and talking about what we were doing, and … I mentioned that the presbytery had wanted to shut the church down. This gentleman got quite teary-eyed, and he said, ‘I was one of those people.’ And it was really moving to him to see how this place has flourished.”

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