The best way for Elmira’s Trinity United Church to remain a part of the community may be to tear down its Arthur Street building in favour of a mixed-use facility featuring a residential component, suggests a consultant looking at options for the congregation.
Addressing Woolwich council last week, Michael Wright from the EDGE program of the United Church of Canada said the Elmira group is in the process of reviewing a number of potential uses for the Arthur Street site.
They’d like to work with township planners to formalize some of the options, he added.
Having examined the possibility of repurposing the existing building – and maintaining the current sanctuary space – and perhaps retaining just half of the structure and building an addition, Trinity is leaning towards demolishing the church and constructing a multi-purpose building, said Wright. The exact use, including a flexible space to be used for Sunday worship services, would depend on a partnership with a developer and what would be allowable under the township’s official plan designation for the area.
Facing a shrinking congregation and declining revenues, Trinity is in much the same position as many mainstream churches, he explained. In the United Church, for instance, where once membership was a million when Canada had a much smaller population in 1965, that number is now 400,000.
Mainstream religious groups could see some 30 per cent of their churches close, with those remaining having to come up with new revenue streams to keep the doors open, said Wright.
In Trinity’s case, an example floated this week was the construction of a three-storey, 24-unit residential building.
“There are a number of options they’re looking at. The (church) wants to be a part of the community.”
Noting the church’s proximity to downtown Elmira and the commercial zoning in the area, Coun. Patrick Merlihan asked Wright if the group was looking at the potential for main-floor retail space as part of any development.
He was told that, too, is among the options being discussed.
Trinity has spent the last couple of years sifting through various opportunities, and has hosted public input sessions to generate ideas and feedback. At the end of the process, members decided a full repurposing of the site was the best option for continuing to be part of the community, Peter Kupfer, chair of the church council and of the committee looking into the development, said in a later interview.
“Our plans are to completely redevelop the site – take down the old church,” he explained, noting a three- or four-storey housing project with market rents aimed at seniors, those with special needs and low-income residents was seen as a high priority.
A shared community space, which would be set up on Sundays for worship services, is also part of the plan.
“The bottom line is we want to serve the community. It’s badly needed,” he said of the housing project. “We’re really trying to help the community.”
Prior to finalizing plans, his group will be consulting with the church’s neighbours, as well as the wider community. They’ve already been discussing options with township planners, as well.
Trinity has also started changing its program offerings, including two Sunday services (one traditional, the next contemporary), to reflect its wider focus.
At the end of the day, Kupfer said, shrinking congregations mean the church has to expand beyond its conventional role to remain a part of the community.
“It’s about building a legacy for the future.”