Old Ottawa South Community Association

Danielle Rolfe, filmaker. Photo by Ed Kucerak.
Danielle Rolfe, filmaker. Photo by Ed Kucerak.

What Is Community Without Church?

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Is the church a necessary part of our modern lives and community? That is the question local filmmaker Danielle Rolfe explores in the new documentary film Who Needs Church? which will premiere on March 23, 2019 at Southminster United Church.

Despite being a mainstay in Old Ottawa South for over 80 years, Southminster United Church faces an uncertain future. The rear hall (on Galt Street) that was added to the church in the 1950s is in poor shape and requires demolition. Maintenance is also required on the original church building, and renovations to the interior of the church could facilitate use of the church for both spiritual and community purposes. To fund this work, Southminster has entered into a partnership agreement with developers from Windmill Developments who propose to demolish the church hall, and build a six-storey condo building and four townhouses on Galt Street.

Southminster’s struggle to keep its doors open to a dwindling congregation amidst rising operational and maintenance costs is not unique, however, and is faced by many mainline churches across Canada.

Danielle Rolfe, an emerging filmmaker living in Old Ottawa South, saw Southminster’s struggle to remain viable as the ideal subject for her first documentary. “I wondered whether anyone would notice if churches closed. Who would it affect? Would we lose anything as a community?” said Rolfe.

“Early on in the process of making the film, I realized that although church membership may be dwindling because of our secular society, churches are integral to many of our social welfare programs, and our most vulnerable community members would definitely be affected by church closures.”

As a long-time filmmaker and member of the Old Ottawa South community, I felt that Danielle's project had all the key elements needed to make a compelling film. I was interested in documenting the struggle of a landmark church to survive, and the conflicting views about the impact that the development would have in our community.

I teamed up with Danielle starting in April 2017, and together we followed Southminster Church’s redevelopment application process through its various stages from the initial September 2017 community meeting, to the City Planning Committee meeting, to the final decision about reducing the height of the development, all the while exploring the bigger question about the role of churches in contemporary society.

In exploring the main theme of the film Rolfe spoke to Southminster’s Reverend Trisha Elliott, retired United Church minister and Carleton University professor Reverend Tom Sherwood, and freelance journalist Patrick Langston who co-wrote the Ottawa Magazine article Altared: Renovating the House of God.

Elliott points out that Southminster United Church is a community hub that has over 70,000 visits per year, and provides affordable gathering space for community and health programs, as well as providing a venue for the arts. In addition to its Centre 7 Out of the Cold Suppers, the church’s staff and volunteers routinely connect the most financially and socially vulnerable members of the community to social services.

The contribution of these services to our community are not minor. Journalist Patrick Langston explains this as the “Halo Effect” which, for Ottawa, represents $4.77 worth of common good services for every dollar in a religious congregation's annual budget (www.haloproject.ca/calculator). Without churches and their hard-working volunteers to run these programs, the city would need to make up this difference by providing the infrastructure and paid staff to do so.

“What was striking to me, was that Southminster is often bustling during the week, and many young families visit for after-school programs, but they’re not there on Sunday mornings. On Sundays, it’s mainly seniors,” says Rolfe.

This disconnect from formal worship services despite retaining a sense of spirituality was extensively researched by Sherwood for his book Listening to the Echo: Young Adults Talk about Religion, Spirituality, God, Gods and Their World. In the film he talks about his perspective on what Southminster might need to do going forward to redefine its role in the community.

The premiere screening of the 30-minute film will take place on March 23, 2019, at 7:30 pm in the Southminster United Church sanctuary (15 Aylmer Ave). The screening will be followed with a Q & A with the filmmakers and special guests. Admission is by freewill offering ($5 - $10 suggested), but all are welcome. Donations will go Southminster United Church’s community programs and initiatives.

Ed Kucerak is an Old Ottawa South filmmaker whose recent feature documentary "Blue Roses" (also co-directed and written with Danielle Rolfe) about providing palliative care in rooming houses won the Audience Favourite Award at the 2018 One World Film Festival.

Originally published in the March 2019 OSCAR.

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