When Rev. Ted Reeve arrived in Orillia, Ont. for a five-month contract five years ago, the congregation of St. Paul’s United was ready to reinvent itself. Membership was waning, and the number of rentals wasn’t keeping up with the building’s costs — so it was time for action. They took on a motto, inspired by a visit from former moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps: “Turning ourselves inside out for the sake of the community.”
Today, the church is home to the congregation and the St. Paul’s Centre, which has become a community hub for its city, bringing people together for food, music, learning and art.
First, they made the building more performing arts-friendly, replacing pews with moveable chairs and updating the sound system. The congregation itself pitched in $300,000, and member Michael Gordon went out into the community to find grants and funding to complete the transformation. In total, they raised more than $1.2 million.
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The space has hosted staged musicals, been a venue for the Mariposa Folk Festival and more — at a rate of about 50 performances each year. Volunteers started cultivating vegetables on the building’s grounds that people can take whenever they want, which is helping lower-income families. The Sunday school room moved to a smaller space and was replaced with a Reconciliation Room, which permanently houses an artistic collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists called Call to Action #83. It includes mixed media, woodcut, lacework and large canvas painting, and students regularly visit to learn about reconciliation.
What’s been most striking to Reeve, who is still with the congregation, is how people’s view of the centre evolved. At first, some feared the transformation meant the church was shutting down. Now, he says, they’re proud to be part of revitalizing their community.
This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Church transforms into community hub in Orillia, Ont.”
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