Sustainable future of the Glebe and its churches

The Glebe Community Centre, a former United Church building, is undergoing work to reduce its carbon footprint through energy efficiency improvements. Photo: Liz McKeen

by Bill Nuttle

The OC Transpo bus stop next to the St. Giles Presbyterian Church at the corner of First Avenue and Bank Street offers a perfect spot from which to take the pulse of daily life in the Glebe. Students pass on their way to and from school. First Avenue School lies to the east and Glebe Collegiate to the west. Traffic of all types ebbs and flows north and south along the Bank Street commercial artery.

But, turn away from the hustle and bustle of the streets toward the relative quiet of the church, and you can take a measure of the past and future of the Glebe as well. Churches form an essential part of the present-day urban landscape. They are part of our heritage and they will play a key role in the Glebe’s future evolution. The story of the churches in the Glebe is one of sustainability and hope.

I did not come upon this story by chance. For the past two and half years I have been volunteering to help Anglican churches in Ottawa operate more sustainably by reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. I am also a long-time member and supporter of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church. This has given me insight into the challenges faced by traditional churches and the changes that lie ahead.

The Glebe owes its existence to a quest for sustainability. A plaque commemorating the grant of 200 acres made in 1837 to support the Church of Scotland in Ottawa is on the church wall behind the bus stop at Bank and First. The intent was that income from farming or renting the land would cover the expenses of running the church. Land held in trust for this purpose is called the Glebe of the church and so this became the name of the neighbourhood that grew up around it.

Over the years, as Ottawa prospered and became the capital of Canada, development overtook that 200- acre parcel of land. Eventually, six churches were built within the area originally intended to support one church. One of these presently serves as the Glebe Community Centre. The others serve the Glebe community in various roles in addition to serving as places of worship.

The church buildings that are essential elements in the daily life of the Glebe community are the product of the hopes and aspirations of past generations. All of them were built in the first half of the 20th century. These churches are an important part of the heritage that distinguishes the Glebe neighbourhood. The Glebe’s old church buildings are a gift, but they are also a burden that is no longer sustainable in many cases.

Climate change elevates and broadens the quest for sustainability. Churches are taking the lead. The Anglican Diocese of Ottawa set a goal in 2015 of eliminating the use of fossil fuels, without regard for whether existing older church buildings can be made to operate in this way. Many cannot and there are difficult decisions ahead. The United Church of Canada and other denominations have taken similar steps.

The plaque on the wall of St. Giles Church gives a glimpse of the origins of the Glebe neighbourhood. Photo: Bill Nuttle

As for the Glebe Community Centre, formerly home of the Glebe-St. James United Church, major efforts have been undertaken by the Glebe Community Association in conjunction with the city to reduce its carbon footprint by reducing the energy required to heat and cool the 100-year-old building. For example, the basement windows will be replaced with new energy-efficient “super” windows and sensors will be installed in the building to monitor how and when public spaces are used.

Given the long, rich history of churches in the Glebe community, it is easy to regard them as the stewards of tradition and guardians of the status quo. But, churches also have been agents of change, encouraging and guiding action through shared hopes and a vision for the future. They have a role to play in helping people come to grips with the challenges of environmental change and living more sustainability.

Bill Nuttle is a member of the Glebe Community Association Environment Committee and the St. Matthew’s Anglican Church congregation.

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