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This article first appeared in the April 23, 2014 issue of the The Low Down to Hull and Back News.External Link Reprinted with permission. Search complete list of Low Down Articles.

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Rebirth of Chelsea's Mill Street Church

By Anastasia Philopoulos

The United Church in Chelsea, with its warm atmosphere and wooden pews, attracts worshippers in their Sunday best each week. On Saturday nights, though, those same pews might soon be gone, temporarily replaced by amps, stage lights, and maybe a drum set.

Or something like that, says Helen Patterson.

Patterson is co-chairing a committee organized by the Mill Street United Church that is looking into ideas from the community about how the space could be used when church services aren't being held.

Mill Street United Church
From left, Kathy Sandford, Stephanie Sewell, Helen Patterson, Ginie Waller, Deborah Thomson and Sandrine Kerouault deliberate at the Mill Street United Church about an upcoming visioning meeting. Anastasia Philopoulos photo.

"We noticed in Chelsea there isn't really a performance space with good acoustics. We want to fill that space," Patterson said.

Hosting more concerts is just one of many ideas the committee has already considered in its quest to not only maximize how the space is used but to also increase the sense of a community hub.

"Keeping the church open just for congregation is not viable anymore," Patterson said. "Members of the church have given their blessing to get the community involved in using, organizing, and transforming the space."

According to Patterson, church attendance has been dwindling in United churches across Canada and, with this in mind, five United churches in West Quebec decided to join forces to create the Grace United Collective late last year. About once a month, each congregation travels to another in order to worship together. And while it's still early days for the collective, Patterson says the idea is to merge together more often.

On April 27, the committee will be holding what it's calling a visioning session to define the future of the building. All are welcome and the committee will share what ideas it has come up with and will listen to any new ideas from the community.

Committee member Kathy Sandford says the building itself is in great shape, with a new furnace and a well-kept interior. All that's required are some fresh ideas and maybe a little vision.

"It's important that it comes from the congregation. This church has been theirs for 150 years. They're offering up the use of their sacred space and we should respect and honour that. It's a huge opportunity for the community," Sandford said.

Sandford got involved with the committee through her work with the annual Angels Share Christmas concert.

She says the committee is looking to create a short-term plan that would use the space as much as possible, filling it with classes, meetings, and concerts. In addition, the committee wants to create a long-term plan that would see a real evolution of the space from a place of worship with some community events on the side to a place primarily for community with some religious services on the side.

Some ideas that have been kicked around so far include opening up a café next to the Nearly New thrift shop, creating a shared workspace that could be rented out, or creating a visual arts centre similar to La Fab at the St. Stephen's Church in Chelsea.

Opened in late 2012, La Fab was a community-led initiative to save the historic rectory from demolition. The community did much of the renovations and the space includes several artists' studios, a gallery, and shop.

"We've been talking with the people at La Fab and we're close to having a partnership," Sandford said.

Sandford says the Mill Street Church has two years to come up with a business plan to propose to the national chapter of the United Church of Canada. And while the church is not competing with anything that already exists, such as the recently constructed Meredith Community Centre, Sandford says she has already received calls about renting out rooms for meetings.

"Other groups have contacted me because they can't afford the Meredith Centre," she said. "There's a real need for a meeting space, and we would be less expensive."

Patterson says that at the end of the day, whether the space serves as a business hub, an artists' studio, or a concert hall, it should meet the needs of the growing Chelsea community.

"The congregation sort of imagined the place being inclusive, bursting at the seams, busy with groups, a café, people in there all the time," Patterson says. "It's a great little gem of a building and it still has so much to offer."