I found it curious that both of the churches in Toronto where my father was minister were no longer active United Churches. Mount Dennis United Church had recently been converted into an evangelical Filipino Church and Deer Park United Church was proposed to be partly demolished to make way for a new condominium.
I was certainly aware that United Church congregations had been dwindling in numbers over the last number of decades, but wondered just how deep the rabbit hole went. If the trend is true for the United Church, is it also true for other places of worship? What might this mean for Toronto, whose public realm is defined in large measure, by its vast number of churches – many of which are iconic structures that beautify and give life to streets and neighbourhoods? What might this shift mean for other Canadian Cities who are no doubt, faced with the same statistical inevitability?
In its heyday, the United Church was second only to the Catholic Church in the number of churches it had constructed and operated in Toronto. The United Church had 131 churches and the Catholic Church (of varying sub-denominations) had 133. It appears that the vast majority of Catholic Churches remain intact and continue to operate as Catholic Churches. This is not the case for the United Church of Canada.
In 1980, the UCC had a national membership of 389,492. By 1990 that number had dwindled to 338,040 and by 2000 their numbers dropped to 270,361. As of 2011 the membership sat at 166,936. Roughly 42% of its 1980 numbers.
If one assumes that this decline has been distributed evenly across its ministry, then clearly the maintenance of 131 churches in Toronto would become an unsustainable challenge.
And so what has actually happened? What are the numbers?*
Of the original 131 churches, 82 remain as originally constructed or as merged congregations that combined forces to save at least one of two buildings. Another 10 churches have been redeveloped as both churches and other uses such as community centres, seniors residences and health centres. Approximately 92 churches total remain intact as churches. (70%).
It is also interesting that only 15 church sites have been demolished and replaced outright by some other land use. (11%)
Other changes include:
No. of churches taken over by other faiths: 6
No. of churches converted to condos or other residential uses: 9
No. of churches converted into schools: 0
No. of churches converted into community theatres: 1
No. of churches converted into community centres: 1
No. of churches expanded as a result of amalgamation: 5
Based on these numbers it appears that the decline of the church has been managed with a great deal of creativity and innovation. There seems to have been a concerted effort by the City and Church to maintain the buildings as physical structures within our public realm and this, I think, should be applauded.
One concern of note however is the fact that so few have been converted into schools or community centres. It seems to me that those public uses would serve a greater good than converting to condos or other ‘singular’ uses. Those public uses would not only allow for the maintenance of iconic architecture, but also ensure that they remained focal points for community use and enjoyment.
If this trend is likely to continue (and it is), then perhaps the City Planners should try to get out in front of it in order to ensure that every opportunity is taken to preserve the public nature of these beautiful buildings.
*Note: The statistics cited are approximate.