Perhaps it’s the act of saying it out loud that makes David Tucker hesitate.
It’s not because it’s something he and the rest of the congregation at Cochrane Street United Church haven’t thought about over the past year or so. One gets the feeling it’s just somewhere he doesn’t want to let his mind dwell unless the moment comes when he absolutely has to.
“We’re on the edge of something,” says Tucker, chairman of the church council.
“Nobody is disagreeing with the fact that we cannot remain as we always have. Status quo will not allow us to stay here. If we get community support, we can probably weather the storm. If we don’t and it falls flat,” — and this is the point where he pauses — “then we might be forced into a position we don’t want to be in.”
What he’s talking about is being forced to close the church.
Cochrane Street United Church isn’t unique from others in the downtown St. John’s area, of all denominations, when it comes to its issues, including an aging building and an aging congregation that has declined over the past 10 years or so, making it difficult to stay afloat.
Money that comes in by the way of rental fees for concerts under the church’s massive copper dome, or use of its gymnasium or recently-renovated kitchen, quickly leaves through the furnace, with annual heating costs totalling up to $65,000 — maybe more this year, the worst the council can remember, because of the cold temperatures during the winter. In January, February and March, the church was burning 2,500 litres of oil a week, leaving very little money to cover operating costs.
Part of the problem comes down to the building’s design. The original wooden structure burned down in 1914 and the current church was brought in from the mainland, already designed and pre-built.
“This building was supposed to go to the Mediterranean, in a country that had an affiliation with Germany at the time,” Tucker explains. “Once the First World War broke out, they stopped shipping anything to any German territories. After the fire, they were looking for a new building, and they ended up getting this one.”
Designed for a much warmer climate, the church had been conceived as its own air-conditioning system: hot air would go into grates in the sanctuary and travel up, where it would be cooled in the dome. It’s not exactly ideal for typical winter weather in St. John’s.
Complicating things is the church’s magnificent Casavant pipe organ, the largest of its kind in Atlantic Canada, with 3,315 pipes. It must be kept at a continuous temperate of no less than 12 C to prevent deterioration.
“For the last 10 years, it’s been a real difficult time here, but the congregation has done a really remarkable job and they’ve kept the building open despite this,” Tucker says. “They’ve done a really good job of all that. It’s just that the membership is declining, everybody’s getting worn out, every year there are more funerals and no one’s coming back to replace them.
“If we have (to leave), our first priority would be that our church family would get to stay together, whatever we do and wherever we do it.”
St. John’s Coun. Dave Lane, who is co-chair of the city’s heritage advisory committee with Coun. Sandy Hickman, says there are a number of downtown churches seeing the same problems.
“It’s across the board. They only have maybe 200, 300 families in the congregation and they just can’t fund their community service as well as the upkeep of the buildings. They’re nearing a crisis, I think, and we want to find ways to help avoid that,” Lane says.
To that end, the committee held a meeting with representatives from all downtown churches last week, to start a discussion on what they can do together to alleviate some of the issues. There have been talks about possibly saving money by sharing insurance policies or contractors, for example, and in some cases, this has already begun. The city also hopes to help the churches come up with ways of repurposing parts of their structures to allow for uses that aren’t church related.
Thursday evening, the council of Cochrane Street United Church will be holding a public meeting to discuss the possibility of creating a music, performance, other arts or community space within the annex building, which opens onto Bannerman Street and Stewart Avenue, at the back and side of the church.
Because of the acoustics in the sanctuary, the church has long been known as a prime venue for performances, and has hosted events by the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, Johnny Reid and others. Other creative groups, from drumming circles to film crews to musical theatre camps, regularly rent out the annex building, and the congregation is keen to keep its relationship with the arts community going.
The church is open to the possibility of redeveloping the heritage-designated annex (which currently consists of three floors, including a gym, lounge, kitchen, office space and meeting rooms and measures about 7,000 square feet) and no option is off the table, Tucker says, though the ideal situation would be to come up with a partnership or plan that would reach out to others and allow current tenants, a daycare that’s been in the spot almost 40 years, to remain. Tucker and Rev. Miriam Bowlby, minister at Cochrane Street, insist the church isn’t interested in making any partnership about religion.
“I think you want something in the building that’s of value to the community, that’s going to provide a service to the people who live in the area,” says Bowlby, minister at the church for the past 3 1/2 years. “I think that’s the heart of what we want. You could probably turn this place into condos, which would give people a place to live, but it would serve a very narrow population and I think there’s going to be a growing need in the community. The more affluent the city gets, the more the people who have nothing are going to hurt. Music is one of those things that is helpful to the community.”
Cochrane Street currently has a number of outreach programs: for example, it partners with Bridges to Hope to stuff school bags with supplies to be distributed to children in need every fall, and holds an annual summer barbecue in Bannerman Park, free of charge, for anyone in need of a bite to eat. Each spring, the church offers a Sunday dinner for a couple of bucks for those less fortunate — this past spring saw 125 diners.
“I think it would be a huge loss to the city if the churches (downtown) had to shut down,” Lane says. “No only would we lose a tenant of the building they belong to, which are important buildings for the city, we also lose the services they provide. It would be a huge loss to the city to see any of them have to leave the building that they have built. As well, from an historical point of view, using that building for what it was intended, I think, is important for a continuing story out of St. John’s.”
Kyle McDavid, owner and co-artistic director of Best Kind Productions in St. John’s, has rented Cochrane Street church as a venue to teach acting classes and perform “Freckleface Strawberry,” a children’s musical, last December.
“Our city is an arts haven, teeming with music and theatre production, but with very few rehearsal and performance spaces available,” he tells The Telegram. “Cochrane Street United Church has become an invaluable venue to me. The idea of a renovated hall, possibly with some sort of stage, is really exciting.”
The public meeting to discuss creating an arts/music/performance/community space will be held at the church, at 81 Cochrane Street, Thursday at 8 p.m. Anyone with ideas or proposals who cannot attend but wants to submit them can do so by e-mailing Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org. A detailed expression of interest is available from the church, and proposals should be submitted by Sept. 5.