Historically significant places of worship are usually closely linked with their faith communities, according to the Ontario Heritage Act

This post concerns the relationship between places of worship and the faith communities that are associated with them.

According to an Ontario Heritage Toolkit document, “place of worship” is an inclusive term that encompasses:

  • churches
  • mosques
  • synagogues
  • temples
  • chapels such as within convents or seminaries
  • shrines,
  • meeting houses, or
  • other places of assembly for religious purposes

At least two divergent narratives – concerning the respective roles of church and congregation – are associated with the future status of one such place of worship, Wesley Mimico United Church.

One such narrative views the Mimico-based church and congregation as ultimately separate from each other. Another perspective views the church and congregation as part of the same story.

Ontario Heritage Act

The conceptual framework related to historically significant places of workshop and their associated faith communities is outlined in the Ontario Heritage Act.

The online documents related to the Ontario Heritage Act do not make for easy reading, at least for me. I would not be reading such material were it not for my interest in the topics at hand.

From what I can understand, my understanding being subject to limitations, when viewed from the perspective of the Ontario Heritage Act, faith communities such as congregations constitute a key part of the picture. As I understand, they should be taken into account – along with historically significant church buildings – when decisions related to heritage preservation of places of worship are made.

That is, it’s my understanding that legislation concerned with places of worship in Ontario are not concerned solely with heritage buildings. The legislation is concerned, from what I have learned, with the larger cultural context in which such buildings are situated. The cultural context includes the history of a given faith community associated with a given place of worship.

Clarity of language

I very much enjoy clarity in language, and in seeking clarity from texts that on first reading may be ambiguous. As I’ve noted in a previous blog post, Ontario’s heritage legislation is said to deal with “living cultural heritage resources.” That’s an apt term. It has a nice ring to it. However, what it means, as expressed in clear language, has escaped me until now.

This blog post and subsequent ones are dedicated to gaining some measure of understanding of what this term means in the context of ongoing discussions related to the current Wesley Mimico redevelopment proposal.

Preservation of historically significant places of worship

We can speak of a continuum of viewpoints regarding the relationship of a place of worship (such as a church) and a faith community (such as a church congregation).

This is of relevance with regard to how decisions related to heritage preservation are made in Ontario or in jurisdictions such as in Quebec, as a March 29, 2013 Globe and Mail article notes.

At one end of the continuum is the view that a church can be characterized primarily in terms of its congregation, with the church building associated with it being viewed of lesser importance, in the event that a church is under financial pressures to determine what to do with its building. Such financial pressures typically entail dwindling congregations and rising building costs.

The reasons for dwindling congregations, and a decline in the influence of religion in many parts of the world – while interest in the meaning of life and the nature of reality appears to be undiminished – is a fascinating topic in its own right, as I have explored in another blog post.

Assumptions related to February 2012 Wesley Mimico redevelopment proposal

With regard to a continuum of thought regarding the relation between church and congregation, I am reminded of a proposal, announced in approximately February 2012, in which Wesley Mimico United Church was to be demolished with the exception of the bell tower, and seniors housing was to be built upon the remaining footprint.

The proposal was, as I understand, based upon the assumption that a church consists primarily of its congregation, as contrasted to the physical structure wherein a congregation engages in religious practices. That is, the underlying rationale, if I understand correctly, was that physical structures come and go, but congregations endure.

New proposal outlined at Jan. 28, 2013 community forum

The initial redevelopment plan was subsequently replaced, following feedback from neighbouring residents, with a proposal to preserve the bell tower and most of the exterior of the church building, as most recently outlined at a Jan. 28, 2013 Wesley Mimico community forum.

At the other end of a posited continuum is the viewpoint that when decisions must be made regarding a historically significant church building, what matters above all is the building.

At this end of the continuum, the question of a congregation’s future involvement with a church building would be viewed as irrelevant to a decision-making process.

In the middle of such an imagined continuum is the view that a given church building may be worth preserving – and that the congregation associated with it may also warrant an ongoing role within such a building.

City of Toronto Heritage Preservation

At the Jan. 28, 2013 Wesley Mimico community forum, Robert Martindale, a heritage consultant working with the Wesley Mimico United Church, reported that he had met with a City of Toronto Heritage Preservation staff person.

At that meeting, which was in the nature of an initial courtesy meeting, Martindale had spoken of the congregation as part of the overall heritage significance of the building. The official, however, Martindale reported at the Jan. 28, 2013 community forum, had focused solely on the building’s physical properties.

Heritage Places of Worship: A Guide to Conserving Heritage Places of Worship in Ontario Communities

The discussion brings to mind a document entitled Heritage Places of Worship: A Guide to Conserving Heritage Places of Worship in Ontario Communities. I have shared an introductory overview of the document in a previous blog post.

The document in question can be accessed here.

The Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport outlines the intent and content of the Ontario Heritage Act as it relates to the preservation of places of worship such as Wesley Mimico United Church.

The content of Heritage Places of Worship addresses in various ways the relationship between a church and a congregation.

The relationship is of relevance with regard to how a person approaches the heritage preservation options for Wesley Mimico United Church.

Heritage conservation process in Ontario

The guide sets out the context for the conservation of heritage places of worship, including an overview of key provincial legislation guiding municipal and property owners’ decision-making regarding heritage properties.

It outlines the heritage conservation process in Ontario and the specific considerations that may arise when heritage places of worship are involved.

It sets out the range of options for recognizing, commemorating, and protecting heritage places of worship, from good stewardship and promotion, through to legal tools provided under the Ontario Heritage Act.

It discusses considerations for keeping heritage places of worship viable in the community while conserving and protecting their cultural heritage value or interest.

It discusses the effect of the Ontario Heritage Act on alterations, as well as tools available under the Planning Act to extend the useful life of the property.

It sets out some of the considerations for property owners wishing to dispose of a heritage place of worship when it is no longer viable or needed.

The Ontario Heritage Act is the legislative framework for Ontario’s heritage conservation process. The process follows a standard series of steps and decisions, described in detail in the Ontario Heritage Tool Kit.

Cultural heritage value or interest

The guide discusses some of the unique aspects of places of worship that possess cultural heritage value or interest. It also highlights considerations that may be helpful to all parties involved in or affected by conservation, designation, alteration, disposal and demolition of heritage places of worship.

The document notes that communities find spiritual value in a wide range of places, and determining what makes a place a “place of worship” can be a community – or even a personal – decision. This document is intended to apply to any heritage place of worship that is currently owned or managed by a religious organization (“property owner”).

 

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