Invisible Infrastructure: The Loss of Faith Buildings in Ontario

Invisible Infrastructure: The Loss of Faith Buildings in Ontario

Ever voted? Gone to an exercise class? Took your child to a group activity? Worked at or received assistance from a food bank? How many times did these activities take place in a faith-building (church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara)?  What if that building was gone?

Eighteen months ago the Ontario Trillium Foundation gave me the opportunity to explore that question employing a purely data-driven lens and working with partners from Ontario Non-Profit Network, Faith & the Common Good, the National Trust for Canada, Cardus, and the City of Toronto.

All across Ontario faith buildings are closing at a vast rate.  The United Church of Canada closes one building a week while some reports have the Anglican Church of Canada’s zero member date as 2040.  This represents a vast and invisible infrastructure that could disappear, be demolished, changed into condo developments or simply left to time and neglect.  We set out to answer the question:

How many not-for-profit and community groups are operating out of faith buildings and thus what might be the cost of their loss?

We received over 1900 surveys of which 948 provided statistically valid data. Here’s what we know:

  • The top three organizational categories utilizing faith buildings are Culture and Arts, Recreation and Sports and Social Clubs (cards, supper clubs, book clubs, girl guides, etc.)
  • Province-wide, 32% are paying nothing for their space with another 10% paying an honorarium like sum. In Huron County an astounding 54% pay nothing.
  • Some organizations entire existence depends on this free space
  • The groups utilize the space because it is in a convenient location, is a good price and is accessible
  • 69% report that they could not find another space if the faith building they use closed.

More data and graphs and data specific to the region is available at the study’s page including a full story map at providing a deep dive of those reporting from Huron County.

But more than the data I’m interested in this not-for-profit land ownership of historic buildings and the public good it has enabled. Because of their age faith buildings are often mortgage-free allowing less operating costs. They were built for public good and have served that role admirably for over a hundred years. But Canadian society is changing.  Many Canadians do not practice a religion. And thus there is no congregation to volunteer to keep these often massive structures running on behalf of everyone.  And so they close, we mourn the loss of a historic building, a civic wayfinding point and a place to gather.  And then we move on.  But for how long? At what cost? When will there be no where left to gather? What will replace them?

I firmly believe (along with a group of smart collaborators) that there is a way forward that could allow many of these buildings to serve society in a post-religious Canada and still provide a place of sanctuary for those who profess a faith.  These buildings can move out of the shadows and move from invisible infrastructure to visible, with the collaboration of municipalities, funders, dioceses, and communities of faith.  There are already examples all over this nation. So let’s be hopeful and turning the invisible into visible and accessible to everyone.  

Kendra Fry, Faith & the Common Good

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