On a walkabout through my neighbourhood early this winter, I had taken note of the number of places of worship between Oliver and Downtown. I wondered, had these communities of religious citizens come to terms with the area’s drastic change in demographics and topography since they had first opened their doors a century ago? And how do the heads of these central Edmonton churches view their neighbourhood today?
For instance, according to the 90-year-old Grace Lutheran Church on 114 St., “the absence of focus on the unchurched and dechurched in the neighborhoods surrounding Grace” has resulted in a 10-year stagnation in membership, dwindling Sunday worship attendance and a Sunday school class one-third the size it was in 2000.
And then there’s the substantial, even hulking, brick presence of McDougall United Church that had seemed an incorruptible and timeless artifact of our history—social and artistic as well as spiritual— until last February. That’s when a report to City Hall estimated a repair and renovation bill of $18 to 25 million, citing a congregation reluctant to commit spending millions on urgent repairs for a building without provincial heritage status. Even more distressing was the conclusion of a separate consultant’s report that there existed no community or philanthropic “will” to save McDougall United.
Like all churches, Grace Lutheran and McDougall have their C & E (Christmas and Easter) adherents. Last year, 125,000 people went to Christmas Eve services in Edmonton who may never be seen until April, if not for another 12 months. But what counts to deans, bishops and pastors is who fills their pews the rest of the year.
During Edmonton’s original “boom,” All Saints’ was a “rich person’s church,” according to Dean Gordon. Then came the crash, the Great Depression, and the focus of the parish’s activities turned from fundraising for nice things for the church to relief projects.
All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral on 103 St. and Jasper Ave. is an imposing structure with a grand nave, but on Thursday mornings coffee and muffins are laid out in the Cathedral Common before a tax clinic opens for low-income Edmontonians. They arrive mainly from east of the Coliseum and Alberta Avenue and are then invited to Holy Eucharist and Soup and Sandwich Lunch in the lounge. It’s free and “everyone is welcome,” Dean Neil Gordon told me (a Dean is a Cathedral’s head while its Bishop leads the whole diocese). I arrived in his Cathedral office to find out what these modern ’hoods look like from the perspective of the parish office.
Downtown’s new condo dwellers come too, to bake muffins or drop by for an hour to chat with visitors who wait their turn for tax assessments. They’ve discovered the cathedral because of the concerts it hosts, such as Pro Coro, or for Choral Eucharist and the incomparable Jeremy Spurgeon on the massive organ. “We’re not just handing out food,” declared Dean Gordon. “We talk and learn stories.” The participation of young volunteers is key. They want to do more than just worship; they want face-to-face, hands-on service, whether it’s serving the Friday morning breakfasts or collecting clothes for the homeless. “They also join us in worship,” he noted, “but their primary religious energy is in outreach. I love millennials!”
All Saints’ is metres away from Bay/Enterprise Station—a “gold mine” when the arena opens up for business and downtown parking spaces disappear, he said. Many people come to All Saints’ from Cromdale and Southgate because of LRT access. The church even advertised its Christmas Eve services in the stations. But these commuting parishioners in fact represent a dispersed congregation and a new chapter in the cathedral’s history.
During Edmonton’s original “boom” before the First World War, All Saints’ was a “rich person’s church,” according to Dean Gordon, who invited me to think of the remnants of the grand old homes that lined the residential streets along 100 Ave. Then came the crash, the Great Depression, and the focus of the parish’s activities turned from “fund-raising for nice things for the church” (processional crosses and clerical vestments) to relief projects, especially at the outreach mission church in Rossdale Flats. In Dean Gordon’s vivid image, it was “literally the cathedral on the hill, with a commitment to the people living down below.”
Dean Gordon said by the 1940s wealthier Anglicans had moved out of downtown to Glenora, while others from further away began commuting to All Saints’ “for the choir, the organ, the bells and incense”—the liturgical flourishes on offer in a Cathedral setting. In the 1960s, the parish became more “activist” hosting a women’s shelter and, for a few months, the Middle Earth cafe. “Imagine a folk cafe, as in Inside Llewyn Davis. But not everybody was happy with just coffee.” (It was raided for drugs.)
And today, the evolution continues: Sunday afternoon worship services in the Dinka language for South Sudanese Anglicans and, every third Sunday, First Nations services tie the Gospel narrative with Aboriginal storytelling.
I came away exhilarated from my conversation with the very animated, emphatic Dean, with a vision that swoops all around central downtown, from the cathedral steps to the empty lot across from the once Greyhound bus station he hopes will be cleaned up and made safer for Aboriginal women. I also took note of other churches dotting central Edmonton that have found novel ways to fill their pews: MacDougall United’s “rainbow” inclusiveness, Robertson-Wesley’s free yoga classes and art therapy, Grace Lutheran’s open music stages. But these chapels have been around for a century. What about the rare places of worship that have emerged in the last decade? I wondered what spiritual void were they filling?
Around the corner from All Saints’ Cathedral on Jasper Ave. stands the now-doomed Paramount theatre building that until recently sported the emphatic lettering of City Centre Church. The church now meets Sundays three blocks away, at Landmark Cinemas in City Centre Mall, or at the Cineplex Odeon in South Edmonton Common. I chased down one of its staffers, Kevin Machado, who is also a pastor at the downtown “campus,” for an interview at the Milner Library Second Cup.
Despite its preference for large auditorium venues, City Centre Church (CCC) is not a megachurch such as those established by evangelical Christians in newly-minted suburbs. It has origins in a church-planting movement, which Machado told me “seeds through communities” like our own.
Machado emphasizes that they are neither counsellors nor psychiatrists, but simply people who have “spiritual awareness.” People who “burn for community.” “I’m passionate about people who come from dark places where your soul is brittle and cold,” he told me. People like he and his wife not so long ago.
But, as with so many denominational churches in the 21st century, the McDougall United Church congregation cannot sustain the building on its own and must force a “community partnership.”
It’s the hope of healing that the CCC offers those who join them, even temporarily, at prayer, Muffin Sundays for families, at Hope Mission or Mustard Seed volunteer commitments, or (when they were still in the Paramount) potluck meals in the theatre lobby—often the warmest place for the CCC community on a Sunday night. “People hear about us by word of mouth, or from a friend’ or they walk by our sign. They meet us and it’s okay not to have all the answers. We don’t yell at people while we’re feeding them. We have conversations. They are welcome to stay and pray.”
But there is also this important difference: the CCC is a young church and still “spontaneous,” building itself as it goes along, not proclaiming any special understanding but just coming together, “normal people who have a shared experience,” in Machado’s words. No pews or chandeliers, order of clergy or choirs, not a church “that says, ‘this is what you need to do’” with all the structures that go with it.
Yet, along with All Saints’ and the others, the City Centre Church could be part of a movement, bringing central churches to the ‘hood.
That’s what Jodine Chase hopes will happen for the 1910 McDougall United Church. The congregation member started campaigning to prove that there is a will to save it among the church’s most “feisty” members, plus supporters in the downtown arts’ community. “Right off the bat, we had a dozen ‘Friends of McDougall,’” Jodine Chase told me. Friends of McDougall’s efforts to save the building began with fundraising, accepting donations from $20 to $20,000, “to capture our support and translate it into meaningful dollars.”
This was not a heritage that could be “preserved” simply by renovating the facade and demolishing the interior for condos. For one, the interior, built to seat 2,000, is in good shape and still an ideal acoustic environment for musicians and performers. For another, the building has long been the site of historic developments, as the original home of the Edmonton Opera, site of suffragette rallies in the 1900s, University of Alberta convocation venue, and the auditorium before the Northern Jubilee opened in 1957. “It has been a ‘tool’ for the whole city,” Chase argued. “And all users needed to be at the table with their contributions.”
Then, on April 1, 2015, the provincial Culture Minister announced formal intent to seek provincial heritage status with a contribution of $750,000 towards restoration (the City may be good for another $500,000), enough to complete the most urgent repairs to the exterior. The interior will be preserved as a “vintage” performing arts space and community centre, subject, of course, to the affirmation of the congregation.
Ah, yes, the congregation. This is, after all, a place of worship. Its inclusive ministry—ordination of women, support for LGBTQ—is what attracted families like Jodine Chase’s. But, as with so many denominational churches in the 21st century, the congregation cannot sustain the building on its own and must force a “community partnership,” she said. “The congregation is an integral part of the vision but we cannot be the sole steward anymore … We’re ready to walk the talk.”