Enter the sanctuary of the newly renovated Beach United Church and one striking change is what you do not see – pews.
Switching from fixed pews to chairs means church members can arrange Sunday services to face any direction, says project lead Karen Watson, noting that the congregation often worships in a circle.
“You see other people,” Watson said. “You can connect with people better than you can sitting in rows.”
The idea that open space actually brings people closer together inspired other redesigns in the church, which was built in 1914 and originally opened as Kew Beach United. Kew Beach and Bellefair United merged several years ago, and the sale of the Bellefair building – which is being redeveloped into condo units – paid for the renovations at the current site on Wineva Avenue.
New ground-floor windows along Wineva Avenue light the open-concept office, where two long curved tables can serve as ministers’ desks or board tables or work surfaces for volunteers.
Beside a bright reception area and lounge is a large meeting room where one wall slides in as a divider and another slides back so that the room opens into the church’s front hall.
“When you’re walking past the church you can actually see inside, and see there’s activity,” Watson said, adding that she enjoys looking out the new windows and seeing TTC buses go by.
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Knocking down the 1950s-era Sunday school and gym on the church’s south side has also opened a much clearer view of the church from Queen Street East.
“People used to say, ‘What church? There’s a church on Wineva?’,” Watson said.
When the ‘new’ Beach United Church holds its first service on Sept. 29, it will be about three years since the renovations team started to visit other Toronto churches and community buildings like the Evergreen Brickworks for ideas that would guide the $3.6-million project.
The congregation of about 250 has been meeting in St. Aidan’s Anglican Church during renovations.
“They’ve been a great host, but we’re ready to get back,” said Watson.
Touring the new church kitchen, which is about three times the size of the old one, trustee Jim McKibbin welcomed the storage space, the stainless steel counters, the gas range and speedy, restaurant-grade dishwasher that is sure to be a hit with volunteers.
Along with livelier acoustics for the choirs and concerts up in the sanctuary, McKibbin said a bigger kitchen was high on the congregation’s to-do list.
“From what we know about food banks, the demand for food is growing,” he said, noting that Beach United houses several cooking groups, including the Beach Interfaith Lunch – a drop-in lunch that rotates through five Beach houses of worship and can serve up to 150 people on a given weekday from October to May.
Beyond the new chandeliers, oak floors and abundant washrooms, architects at Black & Moffat were also asked to make the redesigned Beach United a more environmentally sustainable building.
For anyone standing outside, the most obvious change so far are the solar blinds above the church’s multi-storey windows that can automatically rise or fall to control the building’s temperature.
Another green feature is only obvious to dedicated birders – the church’s chimney was left standing because it is a popular nest site for chimney swifts, a threatened bird species in Ontario that is running low on habitat.
Indoors, Watson points out some small eco features, such as the LEDs in the sanctuary chandeliers, the Dyson hand dryer in the kitchen, and the shower for anyone who cycles to church.
But the church’s key eco features are tucked up high. Just under the roof is a heating and cooling room with highly efficient boilers that can separately warm five zones in the church, depending on need. On the roof, the church will eventually have an array of 165 solar panels. As the largest rooftop solar panel system on any house of worship in the GTA, the system will produce enough electricity to power three or four average homes.
For McKibbin, the feeling of community and environmental stewardship shown in the redesign is all part of Beach United’s wider effort to shake up some of the old ideas of what church should be.
“We’re closing two old buildings to create a new building, but also to tell people that we’re doing church in a new way,” he said. “This is going to be more of a community centre than most churches.”
Watson said that while the church – both the building itself and the congregation – means many things to many people, the renovations will support Beach United’s role as a community resource.
“It feels like we’ve created a new beginning,” she said.