For centuries, places of worship have been at the centre of many communities: serving, connecting, offering refuge and guidance. The role of the church changes with each generation, and the congregation of Nanaimo’s Brechin United Church is now a leading example of a new hybrid model: a ground floor church and community multi-use space, with much-needed rental housing above.
On Saturday, April 29 they’re celebrating the grand opening of their church and residences with speeches from community leaders, a light lunch and an opportunity for Nanaimo residents to connect with each other and explore the new space. Everyone is welcome at 2020 Estevan Rd., starting at noon.
A new way forward
The path to the new church began in 2010, when Brechin needed a new minister.
“When you’re calling a new minister, you have to be clear about your vision as a congregation — who you are and what opportunities you offer,” says Valerie Neilson, co-chair of the Brechin United Church redevelopment committee.
So they entered into two years of intentional interim ministry to deeply examine their membership, their finances and their hopes for the future. In the end, the congregation voted to pursue redevelopment.
At the same time, the Pacific Mountain Regional Council of the United Church was also developing procedures to support local churches in transition, through an organization now known as the BC Community Renewal Society of the United Church of Canada.
“We support local churches looking to use United Church property to help address challenges within the church, including aging infrastructure and aging congregations, while also providing social benefit to the community,” says Don Evans from the BC Community Renewal Society.
“Having property throughout B.C. puts the United Church in a position to leverage our assets for the benefit of localities where we serve, not just for our congregations but for the wider communities,” said Deborah Richards, President of the Pacific Mountain Region of the United Church of Canada. “This partnership with BC Housing through the Community Housing Fund enables us to provide working families with the affordable, quality housing they need.”
‘Our wilderness years’
So Brechin United, along with the BC Community Renewal Society, developed a strategy to donate their land, knock down the old church and build a new community hub. As one of the first churches, within a portfolio of properties, to undertake redevelopment, there was lots of problem-solving along the way — especially when constructing during a global pandemic, supply chain disruptions and inflation.
“Hope Lutheran were really good neighbours and allowed us to host fundraisers, memorial services and events during ‘our wilderness years.’ On Sundays we worshipped at Sands Funeral Home, who were very generous and very accommodating. We had many generous neighbours,” Neilson says.
Brechin United held their first Sunday service in the new building on Dec. 18, 2022, and the 74 apartments managed by First Service Residential filled up quickly at the start of 2023. Community groups are also settling in, from neighbourhood association meetings to yoga and choir rehearsals, though there is plenty more availability for others who wish to make use of the space.
“We’re particularly happy to be able to welcome clients of the Nanaimo Free Food Market back to our new space. Even when we didn’t have a building we found a way to offer food, but in the new space we can offer clients tea, coffee and extra hospitality,” Neilson says. “It’s more central within the neighbourhood, and we even have a few clients who now live upstairs — how great is that! They don’t even have to get on the bus.”
Award-winning sustainable design
The new building is at the cutting edge of sustainability and energy efficiency, making it a modern marvel — and especially appreciated by those who paid the heating bill on the previous cavernous, drafty church.
“We haven’t had to touch the thermostat since it was programmed, and the insulated floors are incredible!” Neilson says.
Constructed to the rigorous standards of passive house design, the building was recently recognized by the VIREB Commercial Building Awards in both the Sustainability and Judges’ Choice categories, and aligns with the United Church’s commitment to fighting climate change.
“Our churches exist to serve the community, and the new Brechin United Church is now well equipped to continue that role through community programs, direct ministry, hospitality and more,” Evans says.
Celebrate the grand opening of the church and residences on Saturday, April 29th at noon at 2020 Estevan Rd.