When Rev. Michael Stonhouse, rector of St. James Anglican church, wants to use his own parish hall, he has to make an appointment.
That’s because a tai chi class might be warming up, or an opera singer might be practising, or a French-language theatre group might have booked the hall for rehearsals.
“I never know who I’m going to find,” said Mr. Stonhouse.
St. James, a 98-year-old parish near downtown in Saskatchewan’s largest city, several years ago was grappling with aging and declining membership and made a decision to reinvent itself by reaching out to the surrounding community through the arts. Its story may hold lessons for other parishes facing similar concerns.
“I arrived in October 1992 and in my first five years, we buried 50 of our (parish) stalwarts. At that point, the future was unclear. We still had 30 people (age) 80 and over,” Mr. Stonhouse said in an interview.
The numbers were significant in a congregation of about 225 families. “We were on the downhill trend,” said St. James’ treasurer, Scott Verity.
Aware of the need for action, Mr. Stonhouse and the parish leadership in the mid-1990s began to think about St. James’ place in the city. It is located near Broadway, a major thoroughfare that is the centre of a lively artistic community, and the University of Saskatchewan, with its student population. “In the Middle Ages, the church was the patron of the arts and we thought, ‘We could do that,'” he said.
They began with music, which had always had a strong presence at St. James. “I firmly believe that when you are short of money, go out and hire people,” said Mr. Verity. Musician and composer Angie Tysseland was hired as organist and choir director not long after Mr. Stonhouse arrived.
Building upon the existing choir, membership was opened to any member of the community and five professional musicians were hired as accompanists. For St. James’ 90th anniversary celebration in 1997, the choir performed a cantata by Ms. Tysseland, The Refiner’s Fire. The title refers to a passage in the book of Malachi that compares the coming of the Messiah to the purification process of the gold refiner. The group acquired a name: The Refiner’s Choir and began to record and tour.
Continuing the rethinking process, the parish decided in 1999 to use its hall for artistic and community programs, naming it The Refinery Arts and Spirit Centre.
“We have the fringe festival in this neighborhood, which features experimental, alternative theatre and I thought we could maybe serve food. So our outreach committee ran with it and the next thing I know we are a venue,” recalled Mr. Stonhouse. News of the new space traveled fast. “In Saskatoon, the arts community is very close-knit, so when someone discovers a space open to the arts, people know about it,” he said.
In 2000, The Refinery offered its space to teachers in the fields of arts and spiritual disciplines. In 2001, two theatre companies, La Troupe du Jour and 25th Street Theatre, became partners with St. James in the development of the parish hall as a performance space and the church received funding from the Saskatoon Foundation for the renovation. In 2002, the church received the Broadway Business Improvement District Award for Development and class enrolment was triple that of 2000. In 2003, the number of performance events was also three times that of 2000.
The fall 2004 edition of The Refinery’s newsletter listed a weekend spiritual retreat for women; children’s drama, music and art classes; and adult dance, yoga, art, writing and meditation classes. Ms. Tysseland is now the artistic director. “The Refinery is a recognized name in the community,” said Ms. Tysseland.
Financially, The Refinery and all its related activities are no magic bullet for St. James. “Basically, we do break even,” said Mr. Stonhouse. But the arts did save the church from possible extinction. “The number of households are about the same as when I came. But the point is the number hasn’t gone down even after we lost all those people,” he said. Mr. Verity noted that, “If you compare the parish list now with eight or nine years ago, there are 90 families no longer here because of death.”
Becoming involved with the arts has given St. James the reputation as a creative and welcoming church, even for non-Anglicans. “We may not be Anglican,” said Ms. Tysseland, whose heritage is Lutheran, “but we have found a place in the Anglican church.”
The arts program has also had the ancillary effect of drawing people into other church activities. “We had two infants and a few older kids in the Sunday school; now the youth program is one of our strengths. We have about 40 or 50 all told in the church school,” said Mr. Verity.
“Being part of the arts community is part of our theology. We have focused on a creation-based theology opposed to the old idea that only some places were holy. To me all of creation is holy. It’s a violation when we use it wrongly,” said Mr. Stonhouse.