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Kingsbridge Centre, Township of Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh

March 26, 2018 • 20 min read

Background | Hub Partners | The Vision | The Journey | Benefits & Value Added | Lessons Learned & Advice

This video tells the story of St Joseph’s Kingsbridge Community (SJKC) created as a registered charity with the goal of providing a large multi use facility for the residents and visitors of rural Southwestern Ontario.


News that the Diocese of London had closed historic St. Joseph’s Church in Kingsbridge, Ontario, triggered an active campaign by former parishioners and members of the community to save it. For many in the community, the church building was a place to meet and take part in a wide range of activities. “What was a vibrant community was left without a meeting place,” says Jennifer Miltenburg, a member of the St. Joseph’s Kingsbridge Community’s (SJKC) planning group, and councillor for the township of Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh. “It is the only meeting places in Kingsbridge located on the west coast of Ontario, close to Lake Huron.”

While St. Joseph’s had a congregation of about 80 or 90 people during the winter months and as many as 300 during the summer months, with a boost from seasonal residents, but the diocese had told the parishioners there was a shortage of priests. The diocese had plans to demolish the church building, at a cost of about $100,000. Were it to remain open, the building would need enormous amounts of work.

Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh township covers 587 square kilometres. It has a population of 5,700 and 14 settlement areas. There is little commercial activity and only one restaurant. Within a seven-year period, five churches have closed, and two schools have also closed, leaving one remaining. Miltenburg argues that as more and more churches close their doors in rural Ontario and in Canada generally, plans should be underway to ensure that they are retained as community spaces.

Hub Partners and Groups Using the Church Today

Today, the church is home to the SJKC. Several community groups and events take place at the former church, now renamed Kingsbridge Centre which is primarily a community cultural centre.

Community groups using the church on a regular basis include the Kingsbridge choir; Kingsbridge ON 21, a non-profit community group; Kingsbridge Hens, a women’s group; and weekly yoga classes. SJKC also rents out the church to theatre groups for rehearsals and productions. Weddings and other private functions, such as funerals, are also held there. Cottage associations farm organizations and the local conservation authority have rented the church. Some families have expressed interest in using the church for Christmas dinner. The yoga group that meets at the former church is run by a local entrepreneur and the SJKC takes a percentage of whatever they make.

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The Vision

Several other churches in Canada have closed down as sites of worship and are now operating as cultural arts centres. Examples of former churches that had done this inspired the SJKC to consider generating revenue by using the building as a community centre for arts and music. They learned about the successful Mary Webb Centre in Highgate, Ontario, a former United Church, which operates as a concert hall, art gallery and community centre. SJKC has worked hard to renovate the former church and provide a space for the community to gather as well as hosting cultural activities.

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The Journey

A core group of about 12 former parishioners of St. Joseph’s started meeting as the SJKC to explore how they could raise the needed money. The building-condition study commissioned by the diocese estimated that bringing the building up to code and safety standards would cost between $700,000 and $ 2.7 million. The SJKC began developing a business plan to address these estimates.

In December 2012, they incorporated the organization. For purposes of incorporation, five individuals agreed to sit on the Board of Directors of the non-profit corporation. Even before obtaining status as a registered charity, they started a fundraising campaign based on pledges should charitable status be achieved. News of the incorporation boosted their campaign. Some people made lump sum donations, while others paid in instalments. They rapidly raised $150,000.

The role of the professionals who donated their expertise to the project was invaluable. An engineer, and an engineer/architect, came forward to help assess the building-condition study commissioned by the diocese. Their assessment was that the church could be made safe and brought up to code for less than stated in the report. The needed repairs would amount to approximately $180,000. “It was not as dire as the diocese had led them to believe. It was not going to fall down,” says Jim Van Osch, a member of SJKC’s planning group.

Later that year, another public meeting was organized by the SJKC to find out type of programming and events people in the community wanted at the church. Most people wanted to save the church building and preserve it as a community and cultural entre. One parishioner’s daughter had just completed a degree in fine arts and was familiar with how community arts hubs operate. At the public meeting, she recommended that they turn the church into an arts hub.

Numerous issues arose as the planning group were attempted to finalize the purchase of the church from the diocese. A cemetery is located on the same property as the church building. The local planning department required archaeological studies to be done, and there were problems with the Ministry of Transportation regarding severance of the property’s access. The planning group again relied on volunteer labour from the local community.

Finally, in 2015, the diocese of London offered to sell the church and former rectory to the SJKC for one dollar. The group signed a Purchase Agreement with the diocese. In May 2015, they gained possession of the church as well as the rectory on the property. With the rectory in the mix, the SJKC was in now in a position to raise funds more easily.

As part of the plan, the SJKC recognized they needed a contingency plan, in case renovating the church became too expensive. “If it became a white elephant,” says Van Osch. “We were aware that this was a historic building that could be sold to pay any debts if incurred”. One of the escape plans they put together involved recognizing they needed to be able to afford to tear down the building without going into debt.

The planning group organized “work bees”. Volunteers cleaned and painted to refurbish the rectory and people donated items. Modernizing and bringing it up to standard cost about $1,000. Next, they developed plans to rent out the rectory in the summer; the first year they raised $14,000 by this means. Advertised under the name “Kingsbridge in the Country,” the business for the old rectory is thriving, as is the fundraising.

The initial work to renovate the church building also included repairing water damage, electrical work, and repairing damaged stained glass windows, repointing brick and bringing the building up to fire safety code. Much of this was done with professional labour totalling $95,500 with much in kind labour donated. Volunteers also cleaned, painted, landscaped, and sorted through abandoned miscellaneous items.

On August 22, 2015, SJKC held a grand opening of the church. The reeve and the local MPP attended. It was the first public gathering since the church had closed, over 350 people were in attendance. In 2016, a privately funded accessible washroom was installed in the upstairs.

Today only the upstairs of the church is open to the public. The downstairs has been completely gutted due was to water damage and volunteers are renovating the downstairs as funds permit. At one of the work bees, they gutted the basement. Volunteers were able to install accessible washrooms on the main floor. The downstairs of the church is now two-thirds complete. Further work remains to be completed to make the downstairs accessible by installing a kitchen, an interior staircase accessible, washrooms and a hydraulic lift.

According to Jennifer Miltenburg, of the SJKC planning group, “the church has superior acoustics.” As such, it is well-suited as a cultural centre and for musical performances. The Kingsbridge community choir, which meets regularly at the church and performs at Christmas and Easter, has grown to over 30 members than when it was simply a church choir.


Fundraising has been key to the SJKC’s work and survival, and on the whole it is doing better than expected.

The organization has received $11,000 over 3 years from the local township, plus free tipping fees at the dump. “In addition” says SJKC planning group member Jennifer Miltenburg, “we also received $25,000 from New Horizons for Seniors two years in a row, to assist with the basement renovations.” In the spring of 2016, the SJKC received funds from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, to replace the church’s furnace. SJKC is currently applying for a Capital Grant from OTF for basement renovations. SJKC has also applied for a Collective Impact grant to study repurposing former worship sites as community hubs, partnering with the National Trust, Faith and the Common Good, and the Rural Ontario Institute.

The last 2 years, a musical concert series has been held at Kingsbridge Centre. Musicians donate their time and all the proceeds go to SJKC. For the first time this year, they were fully booked. “We had to turn people away who wanted to perform” says Miltenberg.

Several professionals—structural engineers and architects, an urban planner, an accountant, and others with publicity and fundraising skills—have donated their labour to work on the renovations. This assistance in the renovations has been indispensable, but raising money for the project has presented some challenges.

One of the biggest challenges is that granting agencies and foundations will not fund operating expenses. Today the only paid staff person is a bookkeeper who works 15 hours a month. Van Osch says, “We would need to double the funds we are raising to hire an administrator on a regular basis.” In the past they relied solely on volunteers to maintain the rectory, but they are now starting to hire people to clean the rectory between guest visits. As well, maintenance staff are hired as needed to work on the grounds, handling grass-cutting and snow removal.

When St. Joseph’s Church was operating as a church within the Diocese of London it was classified as a charity “As soon as the church was turned over to our organization, we became susceptible to municipal, county, and educational taxes,” says Jim Van Osch, a member of the SJKC planning group. To reduce the operational costs of the SJKC, the group has been lobbying for an exemption from taxes on the basis that the County should support the development of community hubs.

The SJKC is working hard to increase its fundraising capabilities and develop ways to evaluate its operations, as well as the way things are done within the organization. Miltenburg has developed an evaluation tool that she calls the Kingsbridge Lens. It comprises a list of six factors for examining fiscal responsibility and sustainability:

  1. Community engagement
  2. Opportunity for donation
  3. Opportunity for volunteerism
  4. New contact:
    • Promote your mission, and history, culture, and education
    • Engage target audience
  5. Networking and opportunity for businesses and organizations; and
  6. Media (social, mainstream and word of mouth)

Each of these factors are used to evaluate how a project was executed, and how the work of that specific project was performed.


The prime mandate of the SJKC is to execute the renovations of the Kingsbridge Centre and to provide a multi-use facility for the community. It applied more than once to gain recognition as a registered charity. Revenue Canada helped them find the right mandate as a “community amenity,” which enabled their application to become accepted. They are now a registered charity.

As well, SJKC found few governance models to emulate as a non-profit and registered charity. SJKC’s planning group member Jim Van Osch says they used the generic bylaws for non-profits recommended by the province. The group modelled the design of their bylaws based on the Ontario government guidelines for nonprofits. [Link to: Not-for-Profit Corporations Act: Default organizational by-law – Province of Ontario] for nonprofits on their website.

To clarify the SJKC functions, they helped organize a separate organization with its own board of directors, called Kingsbridge ON 21 (named after Highway 21, which runs through Kingsbridge). Its mandate is to organize artistic, cultural, and religious programming, such as booking speakers and producing concerts, ecumenical services, and theatre productions. Kingsbridge ON 21, like all users of the Kingsbridge Centre, pays a fee to the SJKC. No annual target for fundraising is arranged between the two organizations. Jim Van Osch, a SJKC planning group member says, “They provide us with what they can. The two groups are separate but work well together.”

The business plan calls for the cultural activities to pay for the operating costs of the building. Looking ahead to the uses of the Kingsbridge Centre in the future, fellow SJKC planning member Jennifer Miltenburg explains what she would like to see in addition to it serving as a cultural centre: “The goal is to have an affordable facility for our youth, families and seniors. The Kingsbridge Centre basement will be used as a learning centre for adult and youth enrichment such as computer training seniors, health care education (parenting classes, palliative care) rural education, and summer programs for youth. When the basement is complete our educational and community programming can begin.”

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Benefits And Value Added

The SJKC’s success in saving the church building from destruction and renovating on an extremely tight budget has made a significant contribution to the local community. Today the Kingsbridge Centre is a thriving cultural centre in Kingsbridge, which today has no other public buildings. It also provides a home to several community groups who otherwise would not have a place to meet.

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Lessons Learned and Advice

Lesson 1

One important learning is to recognize the talent and skills of people within one’s own group or organization. The SJKC has been very resourceful in seeking out talented community members, using networks of local people. Numerous professionals and individuals have been willing to lend a hand on SJKC’s renovation project, donating their skills and their time. With their help, the SJKC has successfully dealt with city planning officials and renovating the Kingsbridge Centre property on an extremely tight budget. Looking back on the process, SJKC planning group member Jim Van Osch says, “You need people willing to lead and give their time as well as general community support, but you will also need good fortune. We were offered the building for $1.00.”

Lesson 2

Another important learning from the SJKC story is understanding how a small group of volunteers can successfully work together and raise money from the local community. It is important not to underestimate the work of dedicated volunteers and the help of a local community in backing a project they support. The St. Joseph’s Kingsbridge Community exceeded its expectations for fundraising during this past year, especially from concerts performed by volunteers. While there may still be a need for additional funding, the organization and its partners are attracting more performers and providing programming for the community. Proceeds from those performances help with the Kingsbridge Centre renovations. Without the dedication of hard-working volunteers, the project would not be successful.

Lesson 3

A third important lesson is to recognize SJKC’s persistence in finding economical ways to pursue their goals as an organization, and in lobbying government officials for innovative solutions. The SJKC is currently lobbying for a tax exemption as a repurposed church.With tremendous perseverance, this dedicated group of volunteers persists not only in fundraising and grant writing, but in finding creative ways to save the organization money, and partner in running a cultural centre on a very tight budget. If successful in obtaining tax-free status for its community hub SJKC may lead the way in the province for helping to establish innovative tax policies that could assist other non-profit organizations as well.

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