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May 29, 2024

A Steeple for the People: The Past, Present, and Future of Augustine Centre

Winnipeg’s Osborne Village is a dense neighbourhood filled with old and new apartment buildings, construction sites and empty plots, small businesses, bars, dispensaries and gyms. Within the area’s unique skyline there floats a shining spire, visible from many points within the neighborhood. Augustine United Church’s newly restored shimmering steeple is a visual staple of the neighbourhood and a source of pride for the Osborne Village community, but it pales in comparison to the outstanding work being done in the building on which it sits. The limestone walls and stained glass windows contain a century-long story of growth, acceptance, and community.

The exterior of Augustine United Church. Source: Heritage Winnipeg

The Past: The History of Augustine Church

St. Augustine Presbyterian Church (now Augustine United Church) was founded in Winnipeg in 1887. In 1904, the congregation moved into their newly finished Gothic-Revival style building designed by John Hamilton Gordon Russell at 444 River Avenue. The church’s rapid growth called for more space, and in 1910 a 3-storey structure known by congregation members as “Guild Hall” was added behind the Karn organ. For many years, Guild Hall was home to the Sunday School program as well as church offices. The exterior of the building and the original sanctuary have been designated as heritage resources by the City of Winnipeg. Heritage designation protects the character-defining elements of a site from demolition or alteration, which in this case would be the stained-glass windows, pointed arches, limestone buttresses, and of course, the metal-capped spire.

A postcard illustration of St. Augustine Presbyterian Church, mailed in 1909. Source: Martin Berman Postcard Collection via Winnipeg Public Library, Public domain.

In 1925, St. Augustine joined The United Churches of Canada alongside many other congregations across the country. The church’s members, who call themselves “Augustinians”, have had a long-standing and ever-growing devotion to the Osborne Village community. Whether it be providing meeting spaces for Al-Anon, sewing hospital gowns for the Red Cross, or serving hot coffee and food to sandbaggers during the 1950 flood, Augustinians are never afraid to take “Love Thy Neighbor” to the next level. In 1995, the church became the first Affirming Congregation in The United Church of Canada, opening its doors to the LGBTQ+ community and showing support whenever possible.

Pride flags and decorations at the entrance to Augustine’s sanctuary. Source: Heritage Winnipeg

The Present: Augustine Centre

While their faith in community was strong, the cost of upkeep for the historic church was much stronger. When the building lost a key tenant in 2012, it was clear that some changes needed to be made. In the following years, Augustine United Church created a partnership with Oak Table Inc. (run by 1JustCity, a nonprofit social justice organization) and S.P.L.A.S.H. Child Care Inc. to create Augustine Centre, welcoming a new era of community service. Through tireless fundraising efforts and thoughtful planning, the Guild Hall and the Church basement were renovated to meet the needs of the building’s new permanent tenants. By 2022, rooms that had once sat empty for six days of the week were now used daily by various community groups.
“The purpose is to take the whole building and make it a community hub,” says Jeff Carter. Carter was chair of the Augustine Centre board for seven years and has been involved with the church since 1971. While Augustine Centre welcomed the public into their space in 2022 and 2023 during Heritage Winnipeg’s Doors Open Winnipeg, the building continues to change and grow with each year. Carter was excited and eager to share the adaptive reuse of the building with Heritage Winnipeg and to highlight the important work being done by each organization.

The original “Oak Table” is the namesake of the organization. In the 1980’s, congregants gathered around this table for coffee and conversation. It now lives in a meeting room on the main floor. Source: Heritage Winnipeg

Oak Table
The basement of Augustine Centre is currently home to Oak Table. Oak Table was started by Augustine United Church in the 1980s as a space for church and community members to gather and share over a cup of coffee. Over time, the purpose of the group shifted to meet the needs of the community, providing hot meals and shelter from the city’s extreme weather. The project now runs as a charitable organization and has continued to grow and adapt.
As you descend into the basement, it may feel as though you have travelled through time in just a few steps. Beneath the historic limestone structure is a sleek, bright, modern basement complete with private washrooms, showers, and a laundry facility. A ramp built into the exterior and interior entrances makes the space fully accessible. The kitchen area has a professional but cozy feel to it, with an open design and industrial appliances. The walls are decorated with community art, and a set of double doors opens up to a space reserved for Indigenous programming. A separate wing holds administrative offices and a conference room that is also available to rent. Wooden doors salvaged from the old Guild Hall are reused in the space, a symbol of the balance between the building’s past and present that the centre aims to achieve.

The hallway of Oak Table, with private washrooms lining both walls. Source: Heritage Winnipeg

While the changes made to the space are particularly impressive, the real innovation lies in Oak Table’s approach to community care. All those who come into the space are considered guests and are met with dignity and compassion. The organization has long abandoned the original system of asking guests to pick up a meal ticket and stand in a long line to receive a tray. Instead, guests are seated at restaurant-style tables and are served by members of Oak Table’s large volunteer base. Almost 40,000 meals were served in 2023! Due to a lack of storage, rather than accept general clothing donations, Oak Table puts out seasonal call-outs for what is needed by guests. Once a month, a podiatrist visits the space and provides guests with much-needed foot care.

A room at Splash Early Learning Centre that holds various plant projects. Source: Heritage Winnipeg

Splash Early Learning Centre
Another core tenant of Augustine Centre is Splash Early Learning Centre. The seven room facility fills the three storeys that were once the Guild Hall and is fully accessible via elevator. At the beginning of their now ten-year partnership, SPLASH came to Augustine Centre fully licensed and with a waiting list, proving not only that a childcare facility was extremely necessary for the area, but that they were capable and prepared to take on that role.

A bulletin board on the wall at SPLASH, with a whiteboard report of the classroom’s neighbourhood walk. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Splash Early Learning Centre hosts 92 infant-to-preschool-aged children daily. Their practice is grounded in a sensitivity to nature and incorporates Indigenous teachings and culture.

The door to the “bear room” at Splash, which is decorated with a frosted silhouette of a bear. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

The seven rooms are each based on one of the seven sacred teachings and their corresponding spirits: wisdom (the beaver), love (the eagle), respect (the buffalo), courage (the bear), humility (the wolf), truth (the turtle), and honesty (the sabe). These teachings are indicated by a silhouette of the spirit on the door. While each room is unique in its design, they are all equipped with a fridge, washrooms, and changing tables. Administrative offices and staff break rooms fill the main floor of the centre, which also holds stroller storage and a large kitchen used to prepare meals and snacks for the little ones. The eco-friendly building materials and presence of plants on each floor illustrate the centre’s devotion to nature, while reminders of the old Guild Hall (such as fireplaces, built-in cabinets, and windows) are scattered throughout the space.

Guild Hall’s original windows can be spotted within Splash’s classrooms. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

In an administrative office, an original Guild Hall fireplace sticks out from behind a modern cupboard. The firebox and chimney have been blocked off for safety. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

As Splash continues to grow, more space is required to meet the needs of the organization. In the basement, the room that was once the church gymnasium is currently undergoing renovations. The basement space will be used as a child care centre for school-aged children, active on evenings and weekends. Splash has also offered for the space to be rented by external groups when it is not in use, which will hopefully increase the Augustine Centre’s revenue.

A sneak peek of the renovated basement, which will be used for programming for school-aged children. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

The engaging design of the basement space features a skate-park theme, with gently ramped floors and a half-pipe-esque coat hanging area. There are accessible washrooms, a large kitchen, and offices for staff members. The space is set to open in early June, 2024.

An old church sanctuary with a balcony. There are stained glass windows and traces of fresh paint on the ceiling.

The balcony in Augustine’s sanctuary, which cannot be used as seating until the damage to the ceiling’s plaster is addressed. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

Augustine Sanctuary
The next step for Augustine Centre is a big one: converting the designated historic sanctuary into a 500-seat performance space. The plan is to remove the choir loft that sits in front of the organ and replace it with a wide stage, about two to three feet in height. The space can then be rented out to a variety of dance, music, and theatrical performance groups. Carter also emphasized that the Centre wants to make the sanctuary “a safe space for Indigenous performers”.

The sanctuary in Augustine Centre, which is a designated Heritage Resource. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

This transformation does not come without obstacles. The Centre is still in the process of securing funding for the renovations, most of which will go towards scaffolding costs to address the damaged ceiling above the balcony so that the area can once again be used as seating space. There is expected to be some back-and-forth with the City of Winnipeg as well, in regards to the sanctuary space being a designated heritage site. The goal is to create a stage that meets the standards of a performance space without sacrificing the historic energy of the room, a balance that may prove challenging to find.

On the bright side, there will not be much need for high-tech speaker systems thanks to the sanctuary’s impressive acoustics. “It’s a space that sings along with you,” says Carter, who originally joined the congregation when he was invited to sing with the church’s choir in 1971. As someone who has enjoyed singing in the space for over 50 years, he is keen on giving Winnipeg’s performing arts community the opportunity to experience the sanctuary’s magic.

Steeple Renewal

While the interior updates bring new light into the space, it seems fitting that the exterior should match. In 2020, when Carter was chair of the Augustine Centre Board, the CEO of Private Pensions Partners Inc., Karl Loepp, stopped by to chat about the church’s steeple. Loepp said that he passed the building regularly and found it disheartening to see the steeple in such disrepair. He offered to refinish it free of charge, with no strings attached. The board enthusiastically accepted his offer, and he began canvassing for the project. Loepp raised $300,000 to be put towards the steeple renewal project. Scaffolding that reached the very top of the steeple was put up to make the process of restoring and repainting as smooth as possible. An LED lighting system was added to highlight the steeple’s new shine. The colour of the lights can be controlled to celebrate certain events: orange for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, red and green for Christmas, rainbow for Pride Month, and more. The renewed steeple was lit up for the first time on July 1st, 2021, and Augustinians gathered across the street to witness the event.

A close-up of the newly restored steeple in the fall of 2021. Source: Heritage Winnipeg.

The Future: A Beacon of Hope

Augustine Centre is located within a 120-year-old church, but it is very clear that they are in no way stuck in the past. The building is a shining example of adaptive reuse and is busy with organizations that tend to people of all ages and all walks of life. The Centre welcomes community groups into the space with glowing enthusiasm. It is clear that while Augustine Centre’s story is long, it is far from finished. The people of Augustine continue to redefine the building’s position in the community, and the renewed steeple beckons to its neighbours, inviting them to join the conversation. From now on, each time you catch a glimpse of the spire and its gold-plated finial, you can take comfort in knowing that the once-empty halls are filled daily with compassion, care, and hope.

Augustine Centre’s steeple pictured at dusk from across Osborne Street. Source: Heritage Winnipeg

To help contribute to the restoration, rehabilitation, and preservation of Winnipeg’s built heritage, make a donation here.

To learn more about Augustine Centre, the historic church, or their fundraising efforts, click here.

Thank you to Jeff Carter and Augustine Centre for giving our Heritage Winnipeg Intern a tour of the building, and to Oak Table and Splash Early Learning Centre for welcoming them into your space.

THANK YOU TO THE SPONSOR OF THIS BLOG POST:

Written by Heritage Winnipeg.

SOURCES:

“444 RIVER AVENUE AUGUSTINE UNITED (PRESBYTERIAN) CHURCH” City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee, Researcher: M. Peterson, September 2007, Accessed 21 May 2024.

“444 River Avenue – Winnipeg Architecture Foundation” Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, Accessed 21 May 2024.

“History.” Augustine United Church, Accessed 21 May 2024.

“Our Story.” Augustine Centre, Accessed 21 May 2024.

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