It's midweek, and early morning parishioners are filing into St. John's Anglican church in the Toronto neighbourhood of York Mills. Not all who arrive have come to worship or repent.
Outside, in the crisp winter air, commuters en route to work park in the church lot – conveniently located near the York Mills subway station along the Yonge-University line.
With parking sometimes difficult to find, and expensive when found, churches and schools have begun to rent out portions of their lots to the public. The contribution to the church coffers in a time of declining religiosity is one motivation, as is the opportunity to help improve urban mobility.
"Because of where we're located – close to [Highway] 401, people who come in from Ajax and Pickering and that sort of thing park here and then walk down the hill to the subway station and go to work from there," parish administrator Catherine Bryant says.
There are also office buildings nearby, at Yonge Street and York Mills Road, and some of those workers park at St. John's.
"We determined that we could let 35 spaces be rented and still have enough for ourselves, because we still need spaces during the week for things like funerals and meetings. We do have things going on Monday to Saturday, whereas many people think because you're a church, you only work on Sunday," Bryant says.
Parking at St. John's is priced at $100 a month. "We used to do daily parking but it's really time consuming in terms of monitoring the lot and collecting money from people who come in every day to pay for the parking," she says.
The caretakers who manage the property monitor the lot, which is at capacity. "We don't have a lot of spaces, and we get a lot of calls for the spaces we do have. There's not much turnover," Bryant says. "Once people find that this is a good parking spot, they stay on for a number of years, as long as they're still working."
Church members park for free, Bryant adds, but most members don't use it for commuting.
Up the road and over the hill at Yorkminster Citadel, a Salvation Army community church, 40 parking spaces are rented to commuters. At Yorkminster, which is closer to the highway (the A-frame can be seen from Highway 401) but farther from the subway than St. John's, a space is $220 for six months. Its lot is also full.
"It helps out the community, because at offices, parking is so expensive, around $150 a month. It also helps us with revenue; it's so hard to maintain this building," says Percy Dill, administrative assistant at Yorkminster. "You can feel the need of the people when you see them crying, they're so grateful – they can help the church and we help them."
Where are the Yorkminster faithful commuters from? "Belleville, Oshawa, Pickering, Markham, Richmond Hill. And then we go west – sometimes I have Hamilton, Oakville, Barrie, Markham," Dill says. "And some from the GTA as well. Many people carpool, too, so there is more than one person per car."
Does Dill see motorists who aren't registered to park in the church lot abusing the system? "I see a lot. But I'm forgiving. I warn them three times, I give them three chances. And the fourth time, if they're still there, I'll call the police and give them the licence plate. We're not in the business of parking, but we're trying to help out."
In downtown Toronto, Impark manages the Metropolitan United Church lot. "There are monthly passes and weekday parking people pay for, by Impark," property supervisor Frank Cairns says. "It's a major fundraising for the church's program, but it won't be there forever because a development is happening on part of that lot. When? That's the golden question. It's like trying to figure out when is the second coming of Christ. There are lots of issues to sort out, developers and the city are involved, but it's going to happen."
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