Carleton University board agrees to talks to buy Dominion-Chalmers Church

Photo: Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


Dominion-Chalmers United Church would be a heavenly place for Carleton University students to make music, the university decided Tuesday night as its governors voted to open negotiations to purchase the church.

If the deal goes through, the university would buy the 19th-century stone church and surrounding property, and let the congregation, community groups and professional acts continue to use it part-time.

Meanwhile the university would make the building a “hub” for music students especially, and likely some from other programs. The church, known for the quality of its acoustics, is a popular place for many musicians to perform. But the congregation is shrinking and faces financial difficulties.

Carleton’s arts and social sciences faculty has been “a little tight for space,” and hasn’t benefitted from the expansions that have helped other faculties, Carleton’s interim president Alastair Summerlee said.

The church would offer a hub for music students, but would likely also serve the architecture and design program, drama and the university art gallery.

For 10 years the university has searched for more space. Then the church approached the university and offered its site.

After a fire some years ago, the church was substantially rebuilt and it’s in good shape today, Summerlee said. As well, it has wonderful acoustics — good for classical music and chamber orchestras upstairs, and jazz downstairs. Already the Ottawa Chamberfest and Ottawa International Writers Festival have expressed interest in renting space.

And Summerlee told the board that analysis shows that if the plan doesn’t work out as the university hopes, “we would not be out of pocket if we decided to pull the plug” and sell the building.

One voice of dissent was that of business professor Ian Lee, who is on the board of governors.

“Why on earth is a secular, non-profit, public university proposing to bail out a failing religious institution and entering the religious church business?” he asked.

He offered the board a choice of metaphors: “a disaster of Biblical proportions,” or the Titanic sailing toward an iceberg.

There are two potential problems, he said: The church may require millions of dollars more than anyone realizes to fix “structural deficiencies.” And there may be “blowback” from non-Christian students who don’t want to be told to take courses in a church.

(The congregation has offered to remove religious objects outside of church hours so as not to offend non-Christians.)

In any case, Lee said, a church far from the main campus should not be “the optimal, first-choice solution for more space on campus.”

It’s exactly the right place, Summerlee argued, because it takes Carleton into the community — a place it doesn’t hold today because it is physically isolated, with buildings facing inward to the campus and not out to the surrounding neighbourhoods.

“It’s an ideal opportunity for us to take … and actually situated within the community where we can strengthen those ties,” he said in an interview.

Carleton’s announcement adds: “No capital outlay is required by Carleton to support this project, as funds have been raised from external public and private sources.”


Join Heritage Ottawa at Dominion-Chalmers United Church on December 13, 2017 to celebrate the holiday season and the launch of our newest book. Click here for details.