More than 100,000 churches and parishes across North America have closed their doors over the past decade. Entire denominations have disappeared or have had to merge to survive.
Despite being part of the Bible belt, Saskatoon, too, has been affected by the cultural shift away from Christianity, and we see in the decline the eventual closure of Third Avenue United Church.
The church been a part of the fabric of Saskatoon for almost a century. Its English Gothic architecture has been acclaimed since it was built. At the time, University of Saskatchewan president Walter Murray called the new building, “The first permanent home of religion in Saskatoon.”
Most churches have a life cycle. They are started, grow, mature and then die. With populations shifting to the suburbs, the lack of parking and the changing role of faith in our communities, many churches in downtown areas are struggling to survive.
There are very few examples of a local church being vibrant on its centennial, because many don’t make it that long. In most cases, tears are shed, stories told and the church is closed and sold. That money is invested in new churches and in projects the denomination see as desirable.
That is the path taken by the River Bend Presbytery. Selling the Third Avenue Church will give it the money to invest elsewhere.
The problem is that the loss of the downtown church would be a net loss to Saskatoon. This isn’t just another building. The Third Avenue United Church has legendary acoustical properties and rivals theatres across Canada as a great performance space.
Its capacity fills a niche in Saskatoon as it is larger than the Broadway and Roxy theatres, while at 1,100 seats, it’s smaller than TCU Place. It adds to the city without competing with other performance spaces.
The Third Avenue Centre, a non-profit group that wants to turn the church into a performing arts centre, has made a proposal to the congregation and the presbytery.
The congregation approved the proposal, but the presbytery disagreed and instructed church officials to send it back on to the market for other bids.
As other cities have taught us, when such facilities hit the open market, they can be lost to the community forever. Some communities have learned the lesson and are converting similar buildings to concert halls and performance spaces because of the value they offer a city.
The market for old cathedrals is traditionally soft.
Organizations can buy and convert them for far less than building a replacement.
Once the Third Avenue church is lost, we will never be able to replace it. There is a reason we don’t build facilities like it anymore: It’s too expensive. Its stonework alone would cost approximately $39 million to replace.
Councillor Darren Hill told The StarPhoenix, “I don’t think it’s the city’s position to get involved in the decision making of the presbytery. That is not our role. But if there is the opportunity to strengthen a bid or a proposal to protect the integrity of the church as a performing arts centre, that’s where we need to come in.”
While Hill is calling on the city to intervene, an even better solution would be for Saskatoon’s corporate and philanthropic community to step up and invest in the next century of performing arts in Saskatoon. It would be a timeless investment in both the arts and in Saskatoon as a whole.
Looking at similar and older cathedrals across Eastern Canada, the United States and Europe, there are countless generations of use left in the Third Avenue building if we are willing to invest in it before it is too late.
Saskatoon would not be alone in doing this. Several cities across Canada have stepped in to transform old churches into performance spaces. Some have allowed the congregation to continue to meet in the space – a solution that would work well here.
As builders and trustees of Third Avenue United Church for a century, it makes sense to give congregation members a home as it moves into its next phase of life as a building.
The congregation got us this far. Now it’s up to us as a city to step up and figure out what’s next. We had the vision to add a world-class art gallery downtown.
Now we need to figure out where a world-class concert hall fits in. This opportunity presents itself only once and, if we seize it, the result will be enjoyed by generations to come.
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