The Westmount Presbyterian Story

Recognizing the need for affordable housing options, especially for large families, Westmount Presbyterian partnered to redevelop their land and church facility to make room for 16 units of affordable housing in a townhouse setting.

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE by BOB MCKEON

Twice over the past five years, 25 faith community leaders have come together through the Capital Region Housing Initiative to sign a public statement expressing their support for Edmonton’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.

In this statement, the faith leaders committed their faith communities “to find new and creative ways . . . to address the issues of homelessness and affordable housing in our communities.” The churches and faith communities signing this statement have found different ways to put the words of this public commitment into action over the past five years.

However, one local Edmonton congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, a signer of the Edmonton interfaith statement, has come up with an especially creative approach.

Westmount Presbyterian Church, in the North Glenora neighbourhood in Edmonton, found itself in a situation similar to that of many churches today. Their congregation was shrinking in size, their 60-year-old church building was in need of costly repairs, and their high energy bills were becoming an increasing financial burden.

The members of the congregation started a process to plan for the future. The congregation had a history of supporting refugee families and hoped that this support could be continued and even expanded in the future.

COMMUNITY PARTNERS

The congregation identified and recruited community partners: Peter Amerongen from Habitat Studios, a local innovative company pioneering the construction of zero-energy homes, Intermet Housing Society, an experienced non-profit housing provider, and the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

Together, they came up with a plan. The church would provide the land on a long-term lease at nominal cost for a 16-unit townhouse development providing affordable housing for large immigrant families.

The other organizational partners would bring expertise in innovative building design and construction, non-profit housing management and support services for families of newly-arrived immigrants.

This would be a sustainable “net zero” project, with geothermal and solar energy, so that year by year the renewable energy produced would be equal to the total energy consumed.

COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES

The present church would be demolished and replaced by a smaller energy-efficient church building, with space for a day care, and community space for tenant support and other community activities.

The project sponsors organized a consultation process with the local community league and residents and incorporated their concerns and suggestions into the design and development of this project with the result that the local community became supporters.

One local neighbourhood benefit of this project is that the school across the street threatened with closure because of low student enrollments will benefit from the influx of school-age children.

When the project sponsors went to City Hall in October for rezoning and project approval, city council approved the proposal unanimously. Construction is slated to start in the next few months.

Often when older church lands and buildings can no longer be maintained and supported by a congregation, they are sold with the financial proceeds used to support continuing church works.

Westmount Presbyterian shows another approach of being creative and faithful stewards of church physical and human resources, that of supporting both the long-term future of the Church membership and the good of those in the wider community in urgent need of affordable housing and support services.

SUFFERING CHRIST

Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), says that as we draw near to those experiencing new forms of poverty and vulnerability, “we are called to recognize the suffering Christ” in our midst.

Thinking especially of the situations of migrants and refugees, he encourages all to be open and welcoming to newcomers in their communities: “How beautiful are those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development” (n. 210). Might he have been thinking of a project like this?

LONG-TERM VISION

The Westmount Presbyterian Site Redevelopment is an impressive example of what is possible with imaginative long-term visioning, creative partnerships, innovative models of stewardship and a shared concern for social justice and the environment.

One hopes this project can stir the creativity and imagination of other congregations and churches facing difficult decisions about the future of church lands and buildings to “think outside the box.”

(Bob McKeon: rmckeon55@gmail.com)

As published by the Western Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2016

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