It took three days for workers to break down the front steps of Historic St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, in downtown Kitchener. The old steps, far too steep, gave way to a more accessible set. The task, as with many associated with the 125-year-old church, is a small example of its staying power and the changes around it.
Across town, at the intersection of Erb and Caroline Streets in Uptown Waterloo, new light rail tracks are being laid to move passengers across and through the city. Overlooking the intersection stands the modern structure that is Knox Presbyterian Church, its large glass windows both of-the-moment and a harbinger of urban change.
Everything changes. Nothing changes. As we live, work, grow and eventually die, the bricks and mortar of the buildings around us can seem like empty vessels that witness our lives as we walk through their doors. But these buildings can tell us more about ourselves than we realize by reflecting where we came from and where we are going.
Located on the corner of Church and Queen Streets, a short walk from the downtown Kitchener transit terminal, St. Paul’s Lutheran was originally constructed in 1889. The architect, Jonas Knechtel, also designed the nearby Walper Hotel, which is in the midst of a large restoration project, and the American Hotel, now set to become luxury condos and an “urban grocery store.” Built on the top of a small sandy mound, the faded brick structure stands firm behind its LED sign indicating service times and short messages to the community.
“This was once the high point of the city and now it’s kind of hidden by bigger buildings,” says Reverend Dr. Roger Winger, who was Pastor at St. Paul’s until he retired in 1989.
Standing among the wooden pews, which face the altar at the front of the room, the sanctuary seems bigger than it looks from the outside.
“It’s important that the church is visible, it ought to convey some sort of message about the historic nature of the church, about the permanence of the church,” says Winger.
That visibility seems to be waning. As churches fade out of modern societies’ collective conscience, their physical presence can also become less noticeable. Buildings that once inspired awe and grandeur are diminished next to towering apartment complexes. St. Paul’s sort of sneaks up on you as you turn up Queen Street towards King, and in the midst of rush hour, you may just miss it.
Reverend Brooke Ashfield helped to guide the conception, construction and transition for Knox’s most recent renovation, and noticed the same phenomenon once their new building was completed in June 2012.
“One of the frequent comments we’ve had is, ‘Oh, this is a church? I didn’t know there was a church here, how long have you been here?’ Well, we’ve been on this corner for well over 80 years,” says Ashfield.
That other church, now replaced by the new Knox parking lot, hailed from Waterloo’s infancy. In 1864, Scottish Presbyterians who worked in the Seagram Distillery created the first congregation. They built a church in 1888 on George Street, moving to the present location in 1927. They have had two major additions since, in 1957 and 1975, to accommodate the growing church congregation. As that congregation aged so did their needs. The fractured layout of rooms and hallways became obstacles for those facing greater barriers to accessibility.
St. Paul’s went through this transition in the mid-eighties, building a new entrance to the church and an accessibility ramp. The original addition reflected a need for expansion, as at one point the church had about 1,000 members, with over 350 children. The latest addition reflects the needs of an aging population. The congregation is now much smaller, with a regular Sunday attendance of around 100.
“It’s a traditional building, the sanctuary here is a traditional building, and we are a traditional conservative church. We believe that which the church has always believed; we haven’t changed our teachings over the years. One can say very definitely that this type of worship area expresses that very well,” says Winger.
Those traditions trace their roots back to the time when Kitchener was known as Berlin. The first St. Paul’s congregation formed in 1835, and has included many notable citizens including William Schmalz, who was the mayor of Berlin when it was officially designated a city in 1912. His son, also a member at St. Paul’s, was the original architect of Kitchener’s first city hall.
“Churches used to be the only thing in town. Churches were the centre for sports, were the centre for social life, were the centre for all charity, were the centre for religious life, and were the centre for educational life.” says Ashfield. “All those five things except for the spiritual life, are now taken over by the state and non-profit corporations and generally they do a very good job.”
Ashfield believes that churches still should pick up the slack when other institutions have difficulty providing for those in need.
“Who started the food banks? Who started the Out of the Cold program? Who started the shelters? The churches, [and] these churches haven’t gone anywhere,” says Ashfield.
Beyond cultural trends towards secularism, in our modern “always on” world, the church must simply compete for our time and attention.
Ashfield understands that his sermons may have trouble beating a Sunday morning spent binge watching Netflix.
The realities of competing demands for our attention was an important consideration in the design of Knox’s new building. For example, its concave roof creates very sophisticated acoustics, making musical performances and events exceptional experiences.
Ashfield recognizes that the Knox property brings many privileges.
“We had multiple offers, all of them unsolicited, for lots and lots of money, which would have allowed us to buy new property way out of town. It would have been much cheaper and much more cost effective for the church to do that but there was a universal feeling that we were an urban church,” says Ashfield.
Knox is within strides of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery and the Perimeter Institute, all Governor General award winning buildings.
“Every single architect in Canada knew this intersection. Every single architect in Canada wanted to do a building on this corner,” says Ashfield.
Leaders at Knox began their newest building project by choosing from the best architects in Canada, to create a building that would not look underdressed among its prestigious neighbours.
They consulted the community and realized that this space could be more than just a place of worship but a venue for community events, a concert hall and a fixture for outreach within Uptown Waterloo.
“I would say that the church adapts to needs without changing its fundamental faith and beliefs,” says Winger. St. Paul’s still manages to continue its mission of outreach in downtown Kitchener despite its shrinking size. “Downtown churches are finding it increasingly difficult to continue to exist but we are very happy about operating something called Community Cupboard,” says Winger.
Open from November to April, St. Paul’s providing, food, clothing and counselling services for about 300 to 400 people every week. This is no small feat for a congregation one quarter of that size.
Buildings change as the people and communities change around them, for it is those people and their communities that give them shape and meaning beyond their bricks and mortar.