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Church-flipping: chapels reborn as cabarets, cheese plants and rock-star shrines

Night peering through the stained-glass windows, the dancer preens like a burlesque black swan at what was once the Mackenzie Memorial Gospel Church in Stratford, Ont.

It’s the SIN Burlesque Erotic Cabaret at the Revival House, and the hall known as “the sanctuary” is packed to the refurbished pews. 

In a sultry feathered fan dance, the performer sheds her avian-inspired leather getup, tufts of plumage falling to the floor, until all that remains is downy lingerie. 

This playful tension between the sacred and the sensuous is one of the selling points of the Revival House, said Rob Wigan, who co-owns the cathedral-turned-venue with his wife. 

“We’re kind of playing off that contradiction,” said Wigan. “I often wonder if somebody is having too good of a time, would they look up and think, ‘Uh oh. I don’t know if I should be doing this in here.'”

The cultural destination is one of scores of shuttered churches across the country that have been resurrected as public monuments to secular devotions ranging from cheese making to rock ‘n’ roll idolatry.

According to the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre, roughly one-in-four Canadian adults surveyed said they attended religious services at least once a month in 2010, a drop of 16 percentage points over 25 years.

While experts say these ministerial makeovers reflect Canada’s shrinking and shifting congregations, Wigan insisted that the 19th-century Gothic cathedral has retained many of its soul-fulfilling functions in its current incarnation.

Rather than offering communion, he said the venue fosters spiritual connections through communal experiences, playing host to glitter-spackled drag shows, wedding bashes for big-city brides and pre-theatre cocktails at its bar backed by dark-wood organ pipes.

“Part of our story is bringing that element of community back to this beautiful place of worship, and place of gathering that kind of lost its touch,” he said. “There’s a spiritual element to it without it being incredibly religious.”

Roman Panchyshyn, owner of Wild Planet Music in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village, has a more irreverent take on his business’s hallowed heritage.

The sprawling store is a retail shrine to Panchyshyn’s rock-star idols, lined with rows upon rows of records and blasphemous musical memorabilia, including a T-shirt that reads: “Smile, Satan loves you.”

“It’s a place of worship, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll worship rather than religious,” said Panchyshyn. “If people have disapproved, it’s been nothing harsh … because I’d have to send them to confession.

“You’re being watched in here by Axl Rose, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.”

The Theatre Paradoxe, formerly the Notre-Dame-du-Perpetuel-Secours in southwest Montreal, boasts an eclectic events calendar, renting out space for wrestling showdowns, crucifix-themed kink parties and recovery sessions from the Burning Man desert cultural retreat.

But for director Gerald St-Georges, these off-kilter affairs serve to fund what he sees as the theatre’s higher mission: providing at-risk youth with technical theatre training to help keep them off the streets and in the workforce.

“We do the same work the church did before in the sense that it’s for the community,” said St-Georges. “I don’t think we need to take the church’s place, I just think we keep doing the best side of the church in the way of helping people.”

According to the Quebec Religious Heritage Council, 547 churches in the province have been closed, sold or transformed as of April. The provincial government has allocated $15 million in funding for restoration projects this fiscal year.

Church-flippers have turned this towering real estate into high-wire enterprises like a rock-climbing gym in Sherbrooke, a circus school in Limoilou and an indoor “vertical farming” startup in Saint-Pacome.  

In Ontario, only half of an estimated 12,000 historically religious properties still serve as places of worship, according to provincial heritage officials.

In some areas, these buildings have been converted into temples of self-care, offering services at a spa in suburban Ottawa, a naturopathic clinic in Aurora and a yoga studio in Wellington.

But in cities with sky-high housing markets like Toronto, a number of defunct churches have been retrofitted into luxury residences, said urban geographer Jason Hackworth.

In a 2013 study, the University of Toronto professor found that 23 places of worship had been sold, gutted or torn down, and with 10 more projects underway at the time, he assumes that number has since climbed.

He said these religious developments can pit a community’s conservationist instincts against the desires of congregants, some of whom would rather their church be razed than stripped down to its artifice and turned into a “yuppie playground.”

That hasn’t been the case at the Star of the Sea Bed and Breakfast in Fergusons Cove, N.S., said manager Eva Kroger.

Having spared the ocean-side chapel from the wrecking ball, Kroger said former parishioners are grateful they can book a room in the building where they were baptized or travel back to their wedding night on an anniversary vacation.

These are the milestones scattered among the debris when a house of prayer is dismantled, said David Deane, a Roman Catholic teacher at Halifax’s Atlantic School of Theology.

From a theological perspective, Deane said a church is not confined to its brick walls. But these buildings bear witness to people’s lives, shape and are shaped by communities, and the loss of these connections can devastate a congregation.

“There’s massive trauma in the community, even for people who don’t necessarily go,” he said.

“It’s a trauma of memory, and community and location. It also, I think, leaves the spectre of a changing world towards an uncertain future.”

Despite this existential unease among worshippers, churches have to face the fact that Canada’s religious landscape is shifting, said Deane.

While some parishes are declining, Deane said, other churches are growing rapidly, particularly in immigrant communities. He said churches would be wise to embrace a spiritual “entrepreneurship” that is less rigid about denominational divides, catering their services to better reflect the social and spiritual needs of today’s congregations.

Fourth-generation dairy farmer Jean Morin could be at the forefront of such a devotional disruption, having brokered an unlikely pairing between church and cheese in his hometown of Sainte-Elizabeth-de-Warwick, a village of 400 in central Quebec.

Having purchased the property for $1, the owner of La Fromagerie du Presbytere spent an additional $1.2 million to transform the church into a multi-purpose facility that could accommodate 40 congregants and tens of thousands of tonnes of ripening cheeses.

While some parishioners have bristled at the strange subdivision, Morin said the symbiotic setup has given the church “a second life.”

“I have the benediction of the community,” he said. “It’s very important for me to keep the heart of the village.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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