Giving new meaning to religious conversion – Jason Hackworth and Erin Gullikson (2013)


The following July 8, 2013 post focuses upon the Wesley Mimico redevelopment, which features a church/congregation in the role of developer of a heritage-listed property:

The outcome of the Wesley Mimico redevelopment story will depend upon negotiations related to the Ontario Heritage Act

Two more recent posts discuss details of the Hackworth and Gullikson (2013) paper:

Thirty three church conversions in Toronto – Table 1 from Hackworth and Gullikson (2013)

Table 2 from Hackworth and Gullikson (2013) describes three Toronto church conversion categories

Additional posts address related topics:

The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada

Burra Charter offers a guideline for adaptive reuse of heritage buildings

The preferred use of a heritage place of worship is its original one, according to A Guide for Conserving Heritage Places of Worship in Ontario Communities

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

Ontario’s heritage places of worship may be characterized as living cultural heritage resources

A March 10, 2019 CBC article is entitled: “From sacred to secular: Canada set to lose 9,000 churches, warns national heritage group: Shrinking congregations and rising maintenance costs force old churches to be closed, sold or repurposed.”

[End of updates]


This blog post summarizes a paper about the redevelopment of century-old church buildings in Toronto.

The paper, which you can access by clicking on the link in the previous sentence, is entitled:

Giving new meaning to religious conversion: Churches, redevelopment, and secularization in Toronto (2013)

The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien
Volume 57, Issue 1, pages 72–89, Spring / printemps 2013

The authors are Jason Hackworth and Erin Gullikson.

The following summary is based upon the above-noted article

Many century-old church buildings can be found across Toronto.

Many of their congregations have seen a decrease in membership, in line with a long-term trend, while building costs are rising. In many cases the churches have been redeveloped.

In “Giving new meaning to religious conversion (2013),” Hackworth and Gullikson note that municipal land-use planning guidelines strongly influence how the buildings are redeveloped.

This is a valuable and informative document.

The purpose of the current blog post is to summarize the study in everyday language. I came across the article when seeking information related to the Wesley Mimico United Church redevelopment story.

The fact the paper is available online is very helpful. Otherwise I would likely not have found it. The academic language of the paper, however, restricts its accessibility for non-academic readers such as myself.

Summarizing the paper in everyday English using short paragraphs may be of value to readers interested in the redevelopment of Wesley Mimico United Church.

The paper has also introduced me to two books about the history of Toronto, namely Toronto to 1918 (1984) and Church and sect in Canada (1948). Both are interesting and valuable resources.

The 1984 text is concise, which has the advantage of presenting history as a series of blurbs.

The 1948 text offers detail and texture, and provides a sociological interpretation of religious practices in Canada. In the preface, S. D. Clark, author of the 1948 text, thanks H. A. Innis, head at that time of the Department of Political Economy, University of Toronto, “for help and encouragement throughout work on the study.”

Toronto the Good; Toronto the City of Churches

The above-noted 1984 and 1948 texts offer valuable overviews.

J. M. S. Careless (1984) notes (p. 122), for example, that “the later Victorian community, all but homogeneous in linguistic terms and largely so in ethnic, displayed a high degree of confident consensus. There was a wide acceptance of a brand of evangelical righteousness, a pride in churches, church-going, temperance endeavours and earnest Sunday observance, which by the Nineties brought the community the not unwelcome title of ‘Toronto the Good.’”

Careless also notes (p. 166) that by the early 1900s, next to the home, “and well ahead of the school, the church remained the firmest middle-class social institution. It was not only a place of worship and of Sunday school, of mission and of charitable endeavours, but a recreational resort as well, for church guilds, choirs, bazaars and magic-lantern shows.

“Older evangelical fervours may have been declining as churches laid less stress on individual salvation and more on the social gospel of collective human betterment; yet Toronto could claim to be the City of Churches still.”

The above-noted characterization of evangelism as focused upon individual salvation, and of churches as focused upon collective human betterment may, however, be open to debate.

As noted in a separate blog post, S. D. Clark (1948) offers an alternative way to distinguish between evangelism and other forms of religious expression in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Clark speaks, in this context, of a distinction between informality – associated with evangelic religious expression – and formality, associated with non-evangelistic (primarily middle class and upper class) religious expression. He speaks of a contrast between a religion of the city streets and a religion of the church or temple.

[As I have noted in a previous blog post, in a talk he gave in Toronto on May 31, 1954, William Stephenson similarly spoke of the religious dimension of life in Toronto.]

With regard to churches, Toronto has special characteristics

The paper by Jason Hackworth and Erin Gullikson of the Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto, notes that mainline Protestant – and to a slightly lesser degree Orthodox and Catholic – congregations are struggling to retain members in cities across North America.

Toronto has special characteristics, however, according to the paper. Toronto was built as a very religious city and remained so later than many in North America and Europe. It has a high number of churches per capita.

As well, Toronto has experienced a rapid rise in real estate prices since the 1980s in the inner core neighbourhoods. Toronto did not, unlike some North American cities, experience a time in the mid-twentieth century where inner core neighbourhoods were entirely inexpensive. In Toronto, the post-war zone of immigrant reception, and lowest rents, is generally located in the inner suburbs, which are distinguished in the paper from the inner core neighbourhoods.

[Regarding the inner core, as a June 8, 2013 Globe and Mail article notes, we can add this:  “The city’s core, which is congested, tends to be safer.” Safer, in the case discussed in the article, for pedestrians.]

The paper by Hackworth and Gullikson notes that as inner core middle-class Protestant families became more secularized, and congregations dwindled, there was not a large influx of “replacement parishioners,” as occurred elsewhere.

Heritage designation

A third factor particularly acute in Toronto, the paper notes, is the ethic and history of heritage preservation.

Jane Jacobs, who moved to Toronto in the 1960s, led the charge against expressway expansion in New York City and later in Toronto. She embodied an ethos of neighborhood preservation.

The paper notes that groups are active in Toronto seeking to preserve walkable, historical neighborhoods, and are quite adept at fighting unwanted development.

A tool often used in this context is assignment of heritage designation to historic buildings, often after a developer has purchased them.

This makes it more challenging for a developer to buy an empty church, demolish it, and build a high-rise condo. Often developers are required to build within the existing church building footprint or work with the congregation by building a structure around the existing church to preserve it.

Land-use regulations affecting secularization of the Toronto urban landscape

Municipal laws, the paper notes, have an impact on which features of a heritage place of worship will be retained, or not, when such a property is redeveloped.

The City of Toronto Official Plan and the City of Toronto land-use bylaw establish a framework for land-use regulation in Toronto.

The framework reinforces a notion of conformity with existing uses, densities, and urban form. Redevelopment differing from prevailing building types is permitted but must preserve unique neighbourhood characteristics and entail similar building heights, massing, scale, and dwelling types.

The Official Plan, in alignment with the Ontario Heritage Act, works to inhibit the destruction of historically significant buildings.

If a building is heritage listed or designated using provincial or city channels, it becomes harder for a building owner to modify or demolish it.

Heritage Preservation Services

Listing or designation is typically driven, according to the paper, by the ward councillor or the city planner processing the development application, who brings the property to the attention of Toronto’s Heritage Preservation Services (HPS) to recommend listing or designation based on its unique heritage features.

Thus the prevailing land-use framework reinforces conformity with existing patterns.

This creates challenge for a person or an organization wishing to build or rebuild in a way not conforming to existing patterns.

The above noted pathways are relevant to church property developers.

Developers may apply for a minor variance to the bylaw if they stay within the building footprint and work to minimize resistance from neighbourhood groups.

If they wish to add significantly to the site or integrate commercial uses, it may require an application to amend the Official Plan.

It’s often expensive to renovate and then sell a church for a profit. Typically they’re small, awkwardly shaped with pitched roofs, and delicate. It’s hard to get heavy equipment into the building without causing damage.

Many developers would prefer to demolish the structure and start anew. In such a case, Heritage Preservation Services can initiate a notice of intention to designate in order to delay demolition and secure designation. The developer would then require City Council approval before demolition can proceed.

The developer must present a compelling case that the property no longer has heritage value or that the building has deteriorated to a degree that makes continued maintenance unsafe.

Heritage easement

When a listed or designated heritage property changes ownership, a heritage easement is created between the new property owner and the city. The easement determines which building elements have heritage value and dictates permitted alterations. An owner can contest designation or terms of an easement agreement at the Conservation Review Board.

It’s often easier, the authors note, to get permission to work within the existing structure – to renovate, and perhaps rezone, rather than demolish and start anew. That reality is reportedly factored into the price of the property, as it reduces the amount a developer is willing to pay.

Ontario Municipal Board

Other factors affecting redevelopment also exist. The OMB, a land-use court that’s been around for over 100 years, has established a reputation over the past 15 years as being very pro-development, according to the paper.

OMB often overturns decisions at the local level. Organized developers with large legal departments are aware of this. The knowledge that a local decision can be appealed affects the stance of the city and councillors.

Section 37

Another factor affecting redevelopment is Section 37, a statute of the 1990 Ontario Planning Act.

This is a legal framework allowing city officials to overturn zoning restrictions in return for concessions from developers. Section 37 is often enough to placate community group concerns and allow developers to profitably develop a site. This can be a consideration when developers negotiate the purchase of a church.

Intensification and affordable housing

Broader initiatives including intensification and affordable housing can also affect the direction of redevelopment.

The Official Plan favours intensification especially near transit stops. Councillors will in the circumstances favour intensification provided remnants of the original church are retained. Both city and province favour affordable housing but are not keen to fund it, the paper notes.

If a congregation forms a non-profit body, partners with the province for money, and converts a place of worship to affordable housing, the city is generally more willing to negotiate and assist than if a developer purchases the property in order to build private condominiums.

Some congregations prefer the non-profit housing option in place outright sale. They stay active in the community and the option is more financially feasible than selling to developers concerned about redevelopment costs.

It is thus easier to slightly modify than completely replace church buildings. The process is negotiated; not every element of a church building is preserved; and goals of increased density and affordable housing influence the process.

Four potential outcomes

Citing 33 cases chosen for study, the paper describes four potential outcomes when a congregation faces a church redevelopment.

[In a series of blog posts I have referred as well to several recent church redevelopments not included in the researchers’ sample.]

To chronicle each redevelopment project, the researchers visited each site, interviewed developers and public officials, reviewed pertinent planning regulations, and consulted public documentation where possible.

[It’s very helpful that the results have been shared in the online article.]

The four potential outcomes include:

A: Complete replacement
B: Mixed form, secular function
C: Mixed function and form
D: No change in form or function

In Category A, the congregations sells the church and land to a developer; the developer demolishes the church and replaces it with a use that has no physical or functional reference to the church that previously existed.

In Category B, the congregation sells the property and land to a developer. The developer demolishes or converts the church to residences but retains at least some elements or reminders of the church. Examples include name, symbols, façade, or plaque.

In Category C, the congregation sells all or part of the church to a developer who builds around all or parts of the initial building. A new church, or some other service extension of the church, is built or renovated on the site.

[We may also add that in some cases a church may take on the role of developer, as is the case with the current Wesley Mimico United Church redevelopment process.]

The results of the research are organized in Table 3 in the paper, which you can access by clicking on the link to the original document.

Category B: Mixed form, secular function

More than half of the total sample involved the Category B, Mixed form, secular function outcome.

In these projects, the developer deploys religious urban form only for the purposes of heritage preservation. The congregation sells the church and land to a developer who converts to the existing church and sometimes builds an extension. The residents are generally not interested in the religious features of the building; they have a secular outlook.

There is a continuum within this category in which, at one extreme, everything about the site is secular.

At the other end of the continuum, there is explicit preservation of some-based element of the church that existed on the site. Swanwick Heritage Lofts is an example of the latter end of the continuum.

In the Swanwick redevelopment, dormers were added to the roof

The Swanwick Heritage Lofts is a conversion project in which the church was preserved but also includes an addition.

When the developers sought demolition despite its heritage listing, the building was designated. The developer thereupon agreed to the Conservation Plan mandated by Heritage Preservation Services.

Changes were made to the building but it still looks like a church. An Official Plan amendment was required to allow development different from the neighborhood’s existing structure.

Category C: Mixed function and form

Sometimes congregations resist the creation of a superficial museum to their faith. They might prefer to retain some elements of authentic function in the redevelopment. The study found 11 instances of an outcome that was a mix of secular and religious in either form or function, or both.

One approach in this category involves the subdivision of the land on which a church is located, and the sale of part of the subdivided lot to a developer who builds around or over the existing structure. [Asbury and West United Church, not included in the Hackworth and Gullikson (2013) survey, illustrates the latter approach.]

In another variation of this category, a church does not maintain its existing form but part of its central mission lives on in housing advocacy.

The church forms a nonprofit that would apply for government funding for affordable or seniors housing on the site. The housing typically isn’t limited to former current parishioners, so it takes on a more secular tone.

For some churches, this model is the most effective way to dispose of the property. Developers may not be willing to offer much money, especially for a heritage-designated property. Nonprofit developers have an easier time getting permits because affordable housing is listed as a goal in the Official Plan.

Category C: Glebe Lofts

In the redevelopment of Glebe Lofts at the southwest corner of Pape and Harcourt Avenue in Toronto, the church was preserved without an addition to the existing footprint. This is an example of a mixed solution. The church was built in 1912 in the Gothic Revival Style and enlarged in 1920. It had not been heritage listed or designated.

The southern portion of the site was severed to enable sale of the underused sanctuary building and retention of ownership of the manse, now used as the congregation’s worship space.

The local Committee of Adjustment approved the severance on condition that Official Plan and zoning bylaw amendments were approved.

While the existing site footprint and building façades were retained through development, two additional floors were added to the building’s interior, thereby increasing the lot density, requiring an Official Plan amendment.

Parking, driveway and loading dock access and width, residential amenity space, non-permitted residential use, and the proposed gross floor area require rezoning.

The developer did not provide the communal amenity space required under a bylaw but provided proof that the presence of the still-active Riverdale Presbyterian Church on the site mitigated concerns that neighborhood groups would lose community space after redevelopment.

Church conversions in Category C feature partial solutions.

A congregation sells part of its lot or changes its use internally. Sometimes this leads to a segmented existence with little formal contact between the sanctuary and condo owners

Sometimes, however, it leads to a more mixed function – a co-managed property, for example, that has affordable housing in the sanctuary, and is managed by the church and its secularized non-profit arm, respectively. Quantitatively – with less land for religious activities – it becomes more secular.

Category C – Bethel Green Seniors Residence

The Bethel Green Seniors Residence offers another example of mixed form and function.

Category D: No change – the site remains as it is

The fourth category involves no change. The site remained religious in form and function.

New growth of places of worship

Most of the new growth of places of worship occurs in the inner suburbs, not the historic inner core. Much of new growth is non-Christian. When the growth is Christian, it’s less mainline, more Pentecostal and nondenominational.

[An anthropological overview of the latter phenomenon in the United States is provided by T. M. Lehrmann (2011): When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. Lehrmann also shares an anthropological perspective regarding American evangelism in an April 13, 2013 New York Times article and an April 2013 Harper’s article.]

The historic, primarily mainline churches in the inner core are the one that most likely to be subject to gentrification and secularization, according to Hackworth and Gullikson.

There are differences, as well, in the ability of churches to engage in the real estate market.

In the sample in the research study, the United Church of Canada figures prominently, whereas the Catholic Church and other Protestant groups do not figure as prominently even though facing similar congregational pressures.

Part of this concerns different church hierarchy rules governing the sale of church land.

A May 8, 2013 Globe and Mail article highlights changes in Canada’s religious makeup.

A Dec. 18, 2012 New York Times article refers to worldwide demographic changes affecting membership in religious organizations.

A March 12, 2013 CBC article highlights research related to the worldwide relation between religion and socioeconomic indicators.


A July 23, 2013 New York Times article highlights American religious history.

A July 24, 2013 Toronto Star article highlights Toronto’s youth churches.

[End of updates]


Hackworth and Gullikson (2013) observe that churches in Toronto are not autonomous agents. They are, instead, part of a regulated land-use system.


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