Getting the word out, for a price

Published October 1, 1999


With both of them in the same business of getting the word out, some Canadian churches and cellular phone companies are entering into agreements where churches lease their steeples and land for communications transmitters.

Toronto’s Church of the Messiah has just signed its second three-year lease with Bell Mobility, under the terms of which two small transmitters were attached to one of its towers. Approached three years ago by the phone company, Rev. Andrew Sheldon says the parish negotiated its fee – “they gave us a figure, then we gave them a figure, then they gave us another figure…” But that doesn’t mean the incumbent and altar servers are packing Bell flip phones.

“I have a cell phone, but it’s – the competition. They offered us a deal on phones, but it still couldn’t beat the deal I already had,” said Mr. Sheldon.

Similarly, St. Luke’s Church, Victoria, in the Diocese of British Columbia, was contacted by a phone company about 18 months ago. That company, Microcell, offered St. Luke’s $6,000 a year to erect a post at the edge of its cemetery, a more suitable spot than the church, which is down a hill.

The only concern parishioners had was the possibility of harmful radiation from the transmitter. They contacted the government and others and were told the cellular transmitters emitted no more radiation than a television.

The deal fell through after some bureaucratic entanglements – including consultations with the parish, diocese and municipality, which had concerns about right-of-way – and personnel changes at the phone company.

(Parishes typically need to consult with their dioceses about such leases since the property actually belongs to the diocese.)

“We were disappointed not to have that source of income,” said Nick Fairbank, church secretary.

Toronto’s Church of the Messiah also contacted experts about the safety of the equipment, since the church houses a daycare centre, although the transmitters are located on the opposite side of the building from the daycare. A lawyer examined the deal and the parish also sought both vestry and diocesan approval before signing the lease.

Extending out north and south from the grey stone tower, the transmitters themselves are about 15 cm wide and 60 cm long.

“They’re grey and they fit in with the stones,” said Mr. Sheldon. “They don’t intrude on the architecture at all.”

The church earns $5,000 to $6,000 per year from the lease, which is a tiny portion of its $250,000 budget.

“It’s not going to break us (if we don’t have it),” said the rector, but it does help its outreach ministry, including the Out of the Cold program for the homeless and an after-school program pairing high school and elementary students.

Cell phone companies describe the lease arrangements as a win-win situation. Their signals improve with the placement of the transmitters; the churches reap some revenue and, in some cases, the companies have paid for needed restoration of the steeples while they install their equipment.


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