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Old Ottawa South Community Association

St. Margaret Mary Church.
St. Margaret Mary Church. Photo by Brendan McCoy.

St. Margaret Mary Church for Sale

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Shuttered in the spring of 2019, St. Margaret Mary Church at 5 Fairbairn, and the house at 7 Fairbairn which was used as a rectory, are officially for sale. Avison Young Commercial Real Estate Services LP, has been hired by the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall to arrange the sale of the property in a closed bid process, unpriced with a bid date to be determined. The listing for the church site states that a concept plan supports development of up to 40 units over five storeys. This envisioned redevelopment at the corner of Fairbairn and Sunnyside would sit directly across the street from the Old Firehall Community Centre and atop the short block of houses on Fairbairn Avenue below.

Neighbours

Marion Haas, who lives doors away from the church, says that she and her neighbours have been closely following the issues around the church property and community impacts for a number of years. Ms. Haas said issues of note included the original acquisition of the property by grassroots parishioners – and not the archdiocese – nearly a century ago, and now the ongoing disposition of the property some years in the making. She said there were also issues of transparency, with the archdiocese providing incorrect information to parishioners and the wider community, concerning this valuable asset.

Along with these issues surrounding the sale of the property Ms. Hass says there are multiple other considerations around potential intense redevelopment of the site. These impacts include effects on the watershed, overburdening existing infrastructure like water and sewers, parking for residents and the adjacent community centre and the loss of green space and tree canopy.

Neighbours are particularly worried about the safety impacts from additional parking for 40 proposed new units. Ms. Haas said this great a number of units would require underground parking of some sort but asked where a safe entrance and exit could be located. Neighbours observed that Sunnyside Avenue is extremely busy with stop and go traffic backups each day and little to no room for additional cars parking or entering a garage. Also, Fairbairn Avenue is a narrow side street on a steep hill directly across from the Firehall. A proposed 40-unit redevelopment would exponentially increase pressure on existing parking issues at the community centre. Critically, increasing traffic and adding underground parking access directly across the narrow street from the Firehall introduces considerable safety risks for children visiting each day.

Built Heritage

At the June 20, 2022 meeting of the City of Ottawa Built Heritage Sub-Committee the meeting agenda included news affecting any potential redevelopment. St. Margaret Mary Church has been recommended as an addition to the City of Ottawa’s Heritage Register under Section 27 of the Ontario Heritage Act. The recommendation for inclusion on the list will rise to City Council on July 6, 2022, along with a selection of other properties in Ottawa. The inclusion of the church property on the Heritage Register has direct impacts on the future of the site. Should a new owner desire to demolish the church for redevelopment, the law requires that the new owner give 60 days written notice to the City in which time the Heritage department would conduct a review of the church to assess its heritage significance. This review could result in an individual heritage designation with distinct requirements that could significantly affect any plans for redevelopment of the site.

Longtime resident Pat Kealey says she is glad to hear of this recognition of St. Margaret Mary Church. Ms. Kealey said she supports an individual Heritage designation for St. Margaret Mary Church and is considering making an application for designation herself along with other interested community members. She observed that both the Mayfair Theatre and the Ottawa Tennis and Lawn Bowling Club have heritage designations. Ms. Kealey also stated that it is critical to preserve shared community spaces to support the ongoing growth in our community resulting from continued urban intensification. She commented, “There is still a chance to get this right.”

Built in 1914, St. Margaret Mary Church was originally a Calvin Presbyterian church. Then in 1929 – with the creation of the United Church and two local protestant churches coming together at Southminster United – the church was sold to future parishioners in the growing Catholic community. Local Catholics were working together to open a church in their new ‘suburban’ neighbourhood at the end of the streetcar line.

Following this successful acquisition, neighbours next went door to door, anglophone and francophone working together, to raise the funds to buy property down the hill at ‘Spring Lake Park’, a new development with a triangular park at the centre, including a spring-fed stream meandering through the property. It turned out to be the perfect place for St. Margaret Mary School, opened at 88 Bellwood Avenue in 1931 and closed in 2002 despite considerable community protest. For several generations the church and school were intimately linked and worked together supporting individuals, families and the wider community.

Community Service

St. Margaret Mary Church has an outstanding record of community service providing support not only for its congregation but also the broader community. Committed to caring social action, for decades dedicated volunteers prepared and served “Out of the Cold'” suppers in the church basement’s Mary Beattie Hall. The refurbished church hall was also used for OSCA community programmes including after school care, weekly Weight Watchers gatherings, yoga and Tai Chi classes, art groups – to name a few, and for countless meetings, playgroups, performances and socials.

Closure

Despite success as a foundational community resource, and an agreement with the OSCA to provide much needed ongoing community programming space – that would also have provided sustaining funds for the parish – in 2019 the Catholic Archdiocese elected to close the church. This ended nearly one hundred years of community service and shared space bringing neighbours and resources together.

Future

The future of the St. Margaret Church property has yet another aspect unfolding. Redeveloping the church and rectory properties might require a rezoning from both the current church building – which is ‘Institutional” – and rectory – which is ‘residential.’ Some community members may favour rezoning and others not so for a range of reasons, a key one being the loss of community space. The stock of available community space has been shrinking for decades in the Old Ottawa South community. Closures continue including St. Margaret Mary’s School and Bytown Cooperative Nursery School in 2002, St. Margaret Church in 2019 and more recently, loss of the space used by Southside Preschool and other groups following redevelopment at Southminster United Church. All indicate that the stock of usable community space is on a shrinking trend with few options on the table for reversing this.

SWOOS

Anna Cuylits, Co-Chair of Senior Watch Old Ottawa South (SWOOS) says she is glad to hear the door is still open and the fate of the site is not yet set in stone. Ms. Cuylits says that it is key for this redevelopment to be forward looking and consider social needs and progressive collaborations in service of the greater good. For SWOOS, this means focusing on the growing needs of seniors, especially options for healthy ageing in the community. Ms. Cuylits said that SWOOS is very interested in a possible collaboration between the community, the archdiocese, government and a non-profit corporation or socially conscious developer for a redevelopment that would support community/institutional space to serve community needs. SWOOS has been working with the community to develop a health hub serving seniors in our neighbourhood with added ideas for programming and social supports. Such a collaboration would be in keeping with the century-long community service of the former church. Please see the SWOOS article: “Moving Forward…” on page 22 of the July-August 2022 OSCAR. For more information contact SWOOS at: swoosadmin@oldottawasouth.ca

Social Justice

Significantly, a social justice community effort focused on the proceeds from the sale of the church is also at play. In August 2021, anticipating the sale of the church property, a group of 71 former parishioners wrote to Archbishop Damphousse of the Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall asking that a portion – $1.5 to $3 million – of the proceeds for the sale of the lands (estimated at the time at $5M) be directed to support Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. An October 2021 response to this request incorrectly stated that the church property had been sold at the time the parish was closed in 2019 and the monies had been disbursed at that time. Archbishop Damphousse further stated in his letter that part of these disbursed funds “might be used towards our contribution to the national campaign.” As the St. Margaret Mary Church property is now officially being sold, the original request from the group still stands with group members hoping for a new and different response. The group anticipates their request to Archbishop Damphousse, asking for an ethical use of the church sale proceeds, will move forward anew as the sale of the church plays out.

If you are interested in updates around the fate of St. Margaret Mary Church, have thoughts or opinions about potential rezoning and heritage designation, community space and other development aspects please email windinthetrees@rogers.com – I am working with neighbours to coordinate and support information sharing and engagement.

Missy Fraser is an OOS based artist who was a member of both the St. Margaret Mary School and St. Margaret Mary Church communities.

Featured in the July-August 2022 OSCAR.


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