By AGNIESZKA RUCK
The B.C. Catholic
VANCOUVER — A photographer on the corner of Hastings and Pender Streets in the 1890s could have snapped a photo with as many as four church steeples in view at a time.
Towers and high rises have since replaced steeples as dominant features on the Vancouver skyline, and today’s professionals would be hard-pressed to get more than one traditional church structure in a shot. But this changing landscape doesn’t prove Vancouver has abandoned Christian faith.
In fact, author and journalist Frank Stirk believes the opposite is true.
“You hear people say, ‘the church is dying in Vancouver.’ What I found was quite the opposite. The church is growing in Vancouver,” he told The B.C. Catholic.
In 2013, Mr. Stirk sat down to interview a pastor in Downtown Vancouver about St. Peter’s Fireside, a new Anglican church opening in the area. He wanted to know why anyone would start a church in a very secular neighbourhood.
What the pastor said shocked him. St. Peter’s Fireside was only one of about six churches of various denominations opening downtown around the same time.
“I thought: This is incredible,” said Mr. Stirk. “This is downtown Vancouver. This is the West End. This is a very secular area. Why would anybody want to start a church down there?”
Mr. Stirk, who conducted the interview for a Christian news organization, contacted his editor and said he had a much bigger story than a 600-word piece on a budding little Anglican church. The story was expanded to 1,000 words, Mr. Stirk interviewed five more church planters, and ended up with far more content than he could squeeze into a single article.
“The interviews were so long and they were telling me all these amazing stories. I go to write the article, and I’m able to use maybe two sentences out of every interview,” he said. “I believe it was the Lord telling me: ‘You’ve got a book here.’”
Mr. Stirk retired from journalism in 2014 and spent the next 4 1/2 years researching Vancouver history, interviewing church leaders, including Catholic, and trying to answer his burning question: why would anyone open a church in a firmly secular community? His findings were published this February in Streams in the Negev: Stories of How God is Starting to Redeem Vancouver.
“There’s more Christian activity in the downtown peninsula now than at any point in Vancouver’s history. That’s a fact,” said Mr. Stirk.
Sifting through city archives, Mr. Stirk learned that in 1888 (only two years after Vancouver was incorporated as a city) there were six churches on the downtown peninsula, including Holy Rosary Church (now Holy Rosary Cathedral).
Looking ahead 100 years, Mr. Stirk found a brochure published in 1988 that seemed to be a directory for tourists and included a listing of churches in the downtown area. There were nine.
“There was a net increase of three in 100 years,” said Mr. Stirk. It was disappointing, but not entirely surprising.
“This is a highly secular society, but that’s not a new thing. That’s basically Vancouver’s history right from the start,” he said.
Vancouver’s first settlers came looking for a fortune through harvesting natural resources and “that instilled something in Vancouver that is still true today: It’s a very transient society.”
He believes B.C. is the “most secular province” in Canada. “People say it’s Quebec, and there’s some truth to that, but … there are a lot of people in Quebec that have nothing to do with the Catholic Church, but it’s still part of their heritage. It’s still part of their culture. B.C. has never had anything like that. It has always been secular.”
The discouraging truth gave way to positive news as Mr. Stirk interviewed more than 70 church leaders and worked out the number of churches in the same geographic area in 2015. There were 28.
His count included every church in the downtown peninsula that professes Jesus as Lord and Saviour, even if its other tenets run counter to Mr. Stirk’s personal Baptist beliefs.
Church steeples are no longer symbols of the Vancouver skyline, but Mr. Stirk is convinced Christianity is indeed growing and expanding — albeit very differently from 100 years ago.
He guesses Guardian Angels Parish (established in 1949) built the last standalone church in the West End. Since then, new congregations are “finding space wherever they can.” New Christian communities are renting space in hotels, libraries, school auditoriums, and even movie theatres for Sunday worship.
For example, Coastal Church first opened in a heritage building on Georgia Street. It has since expanded to four locations, including a movie theatre in Pitt Meadows.
“They now have, in total, over 2,000 members, which makes them by definition a mega-church. And this started in the West End of Vancouver.”
Meanwhile, Central Presbyterian Church built a 22-storey tower that includes church offices, a sanctuary, and residential suites. It lacks the look of a traditional church structure but adds housing to the area and space for the Christian community.
No new Catholic churches have gone up in the downtown area in recent years, but he found Holy Rosary Cathedral and Guardian Angels Parish have experienced growth and new life in part because of an increase in Catholic immigrants in the downtown core.
Since his count in 2015, some new churches may have opened, some have moved outside of Vancouver’s downtown core, and a few have closed, but overall the news is encouraging, Mr. Stirk said.
One rector Mr. Stirk interviewed said evangelizing downtown Vancouver is “like ploughing concrete.”
“I can see that,” said Mr. Stirk, “but there are cracks in the concrete. The concrete is still there, but I don’t think it’s that solid mass of concrete that it was at one time.”
Mr. Stirk drew the title of his book from Psalm 126:4: “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev.”
The Negev is a desert in southern Israel that is bone dry until a rainy season causes streams to flow and the ground to bloom, which is what Mr. Stirk believes is happening in Vancouver. §