Oak Bay United Church board chair Cheryl Thomas in front of the historic church. (Octavian Lacatusu/Oak Bay News)

Oak Bay United Church looks for community initiatives

Aging infratructure and high maintenaince costs could spell trouble, says congregation chair

Oak Bay United Church is on the lookout for a sustainable financial plan as rising maintenance bills and lack of available funds threatens the congregation’s survival.

So far, the congregation has set out “preliminary stages” of any possibilities for development in the Oak Bay community, notably a possible development for rental housing, though no such opportunity has risen yet.

Times have changed too, as financial support and community involvement with churches in general has dwindled in recent years, said Oak Bay United Church board chair Cheryl Thomas.

“Like many churches, we are struggling to maintain our aging infrastructure and we need to be creative in raising enough capital to ensure the buildings on our property are maintained and our congregation has long term stability,” she said.

“We’re growing, we’re vibrant, but it’s not like the olden days that everybody in the community, even if you didn’t go to church, would contribute to the church.”

The church congregation initially owned most of the block on Mitchell Street, but as time passed and they needed money, they sold off, subdivided, and used that money to operate for several years, before they did it again, and again.

At one point, the century-old church was closed for 14 years after being condemned for earthquake safety concerns, but after managing to raise $1.5 million, the congregation implemented modern renovations and is now earthquake safe.

“We saved the church, but the reality is that it takes a lot of resources to maintain that,” Thomas said. “Now we’re in a situation where we can’t sell off any more … in order to be sustainable, we need to find another source of income. We have a 100-plus year old building there that requires a lot of maintenance. It’s been deferred because we can’t afford it.”

Currently, the congregation owns an old duplex where its office is located, as well as another building leased to Threshold Housing Society that supports at-risk youth. Adjacent to the church is also an old cinder-block gymnasium.

Offers have come and gone, mostly from interested developers wanting to tear down the church and build condos, though that idea didn’t sit well with the congregation, considering that their goal is to build something sustainable both for the church and the community.

“We want something that will live our values, we don’t want a bunch of high-end condos or retail space. There’s a huge need in the community for affordable rental housing,” Thomas said.

Some even offered proposals to build a theatre, as well as a school for the performing arts, though that fizzled out too. But time is ticking, so when Thomas took the role as chair two years ago, she recognized something needs to be done soon.

“I looked at the financials and thought, we gotta do something or we’ll be closing our doors in five years. A couple of big maintenance bills and we’re hooped,” she said.

So far, Thomas added, the congregation has been in discussion with the B.C. Housing Society to put together a possible plan going forward, though she asked the Oak Bay community to step up and get involved in the discussion as well.

“What are those services that are missing and what can we do to provide them.”

For more info, or to contact the Oak Bay United Church directly, visit oakbayunitedchurch.ca.

octavian.lacatusu @oakbaynews.com