How and why should Southminster Church, this important part of Old Ottawa South, continue to thrive in our community and why should Old Ottawa South fight to keep our R3—three storey residential zoning? At first blush, the current proposal to rezone the church property to allow a nominally 6 storey, but practically a 7 storey condominium, to be built behind the church seems like the perfect answer. But is it really so? Yes, the money the church will receive from the developer, Windmill Development, will pay for repairs that are urgently needed. But what will happen five years down the road when more repairs are required? And, has the church really gotten the best value for the property to be severed from the back? Is the only way to keep the church alive to encroach on the current residential zoning of the neighbourhood with a twenty-plus metre structure as opposed to the current R3 allowance of eleven metres? How can we save the church and the neighbourhood too and why should we care about preserving either?
Southminster is a significant institution of the Old Ottawa South community both past, present and, we hope, future. It originates from the consolidation of the first Methodist and Presbyterian congregations formed in Ottawa South more than a century and a half ago. Southminster has celebrated 85 years of continuous urban ministry serving the Old Ottawa South community at its present landmark site overlooking the Rideau Canal. The church building as it exists today was consecrated in 1932 and bears witness to the thousands who entered its doors during the depression years, the Second World War, the post-war boom, and succeeding decades.
Outreach activities were strengthened in the post-war years and the church continues to expand its community outreach today through such activities as the establishment of ‘Out of the Cold Suppers’ in 1997. Since then suppers have run weekly from November to March serving up to 1300 meals in a season. Southminster supports the Amnesty International Write for Rights program and sponsors the 17th Ottawa Scout Group. It is a member of the Centretown Churches Social Action Committee (CCSAC) which includes 23 churches in the central area of Ottawa. During 2016 CCSAC continued to focus on supporting the Centretown Emergency Food Centre.
Music has always played an important role in the life of Southminster. Installed in 1932, the heritage Casavant Frères organ reverberates with sound on Sundays, and at other times in celebrations, concerts, and special activities. Musical events are an important link between Southminster and the community. In 2003 Doors Open for Music at Southminster, a series of weekly noon-time concerts, was launched and continues up to the present time.
The congregation continues to look for ways of opening up communication among themselves and with the community to get a better sense of the spiritual needs around them. Among many other services, they offer the following to the community: an arts-based story telling program for children and youth, nursery facilities for infants, a children’s choir, a community-based supper for those living alone or on fixed income, a vibrant music program, a group that meets to study spiritual practices.
Old Ottawa South is amongst the oldest residential neighbourhoods of Ottawa that still exist in nearly intact early 20th century form. Many properties still retain in whole or in part architectural features dating back 80 or 100 years. OOS shares a long history with and borders on the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007. More than 200 years ago John Stegman carried out basic surveys for what was to become Ottawa South. His name survives today attached to the rapids on the Rideau River near Carleton University.
Early settlers in the Ottawa South area were from the United States. Braddish Billings, originally from Massachusetts, arrived in 1812 followed by Abraham Dow and his brothers from New York State. In 1827 the construction of the Rideau Canal began. During the 1800’s a school, grist mill, hotel, blacksmith shop and church were built in Ottawa South near the Bank and Riverdale intersection. The nearby community of Billings Bridge was connected to Ottawa South at the time by a wooden swing bridge and residents of Ottawa South tended to look south towards Billings Bridge for services rather than north to Bytown.
Growth of the community began to increase in 1907 when the City of Ottawa annexed this area. In 1912 the high-level Bank Street Bridge was constructed over the canal soon to be followed by an electric streetcar line. After this time the community grew rapidly. In 1915 Ottawa South was the city’s newest suburb. The Mayfair Theatre opened in 1932. During the Second World War many local houses were temporarily duplexed to provide accommodation for the influx of government workers. The Windsor Park area had ‘victory gardens’ near the river. Otherwise this park and the ‘woods’ near Cameron Street were dense bush. Until the system of dykes was constructed in the 1970’s, the Rideau River overflowed its banks each spring. Today the vacant lots, market gardens, the city dump, and the woods have all but disappeared. Many neighbourhood laneways remain.
Southminster has been a landmark and centre of the Ottawa South community for 85 years. Its roots in the community go back almost 150 years. There is a tradition of cooperation within the church and with neighbouring congregations. The sanctuary is often the site of public lectures, music and writers’ festivals. Romeo Dallaire spoke there about the Rwandan genocide in 2005. In 2006 Stephen Lewis gave an address about AIDs in Africa. Several of its members have been actively engaged in international cooperation and peace-building. Senator Peter Harder served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, a former member, as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
The Church has both important historical value and associative value for both Ottawa as a whole and especially for the Old Ottawa South community. It has been a key part of the spiritual and social life of Ottawa South since the 1800’s and continues to be so to the present time. It was constructed at the height of the depression in 1931 against all odds when most other new construction in the city was being abandoned. This tough spirit remains today when church attendance is falling everywhere in Canada. Southminster continues to be an active hub of the community for Christians and non-Christians alike. Over the years the church has worked hard to maintain its strong relationship with the community. The church is a defining physical entry point to Old Ottawa South as you approach from the north on Bank Street. It stands high on the height of land formerly called ‘the hill’ and offers a religious, architectural, and historical balance with its sister structure across the road, the former monastery of the Sisters of the Precious Blood.
How best to preserve the church within Old Ottawa South, a thriving inner-city suburb where young and old stroll quiet streets, where green space and gardens abound and where houses remain at three stories or less? The Windmill proposal to build a 20 metre, 6 storey building on a quiet street of three storey buildings is surely not the answer. A glass ‘wedding cake’ looming over the church will destroy forever the beautiful welcome the church has provided for over 85 years. I am convinced that we can ensure that the church survives and that OOS remains a family-oriented, quiet, R3 community. I am sure that Windmill, their architect, and the Church are able to propose a stunning development that preserves our neighbourhood and Southminster too. Already the four townhouses proposed on Aylmer Avenue give a beautiful example of what is possible. How about it folks?