Is a church the brick and mortar structure in which it stands, or is it the spiritual home built by its congregation that keeps it thriving?
That was the question facing Rev. Beth Walker when the aging structure on the corner of Fairfield and Moss streets, better known as the Fairfield United Church, reached a point from which it could not return.
“I pray for people when they come in here,” Walker says, only half-joking, pointing to a side exit with a deteriorated and shaky ramp.
The peak of the red brick church built in 1925 sits at the exact height of a four-storey building, which is what developer Nicole Roberts is proposing in order to keep the congregation in the neighbourhood it has known for almost a century.
It’s not easy. The details are delicate and members of the church, known for its multi-generational following, have become divided on the issue. Some have left for other places to worship.
But not everyone understands the state of disrepair into which the church has fallen, Walker explains.
The building isn’t up to seismic code and a roof that has been leaking for two decades has left a trail of mould on the walls and around window frames. The floor is visibly sloping and sits on a foundation that is crumbling. The Victoria Fire Department enforced the closing of the second-floor balcony, rendering capacity to just 250 people, down from 300.
In the beginning the church looked for partnerships in order to retain the building somehow.
“We couldn’t find any one who was interested and/or could put together the finances in order to support any shifts in changing,” says Walker.
Given the state of the building, the minister has officiated at Sunday services across the street in the Garry Oak room at the Fairfield Gonzales Community Centre since late January.
The church has seen upgrades throughout the years, including beams to reinforce the ceiling in the late 90’s. A renovation for the building, which is not on the heritage registry, would cost the church up to $2 million and still not meet all requirements.
So, the church found a helping hand in Roberts. The local developer purchased the property and has filed a rezoning application with the City of Victoria to allow for a mixed-use building that would include 16 units of market rental housing, a cafe and a new brick and mortar home for Fairfield United.
“The rental housing is needed, especially as we’re seeing the cost of for-sale housing skyrocketing,” Roberts says.”We have people on the list who want to rent here.”
For the record, Walker says, “We didn’t take the highest bid necessarily. We found someone who was willing to work with us.”
For the vision, deemed Unity Commons, to come to fruition, amendments to the Fairfield Gonzales Official Community Plan (currently under revision) are required, namely to allow for four storeys instead of the three currently mandated. The property sits on a sloping hill, so the extra height isn’t as imposing as it may sound, Roberts points out.
The rental units are key – that revenue will be what subsidizes the church and enables it to secure a new home.
There are some in the community who worry this development could set a precedent that would result in a gentrified neighbourhood full of condo towers, but Roberts says that’s where the project is on the same page as the neighbours.
“The church could have easily joined another congregation, but it’s their commitment to the community that’s brought all of this about,” she says. “This project is not about tearing it down, it’s about building it up.”
The church has planned two open houses, April 28 and May 18 to address concerns, clarify rumours and inform the neighbouring residents of the details.
“In the end, it comes down to a choice between the church building and the church congregation and we are fighting to make a home for the church congregation,” Roberts says.