Event planners always ask if they can serve booze at St. Stephen's-in-the-Fields Church. Jim Sutherland just points to the mosaic. "Christ is holding a big jug of wine," says Mr. Sutherland, the church sexton. "It's the cup of life."
More than just a place for the same old weddings and organ recitals, St. Stephen's is known for its nightlife. In this Anglican church, belly dancers shake it at the altar and mosh pits form in the pews. The building, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, hosts concerts and clothing swaps, not to mention Saturday-night raves that go until dawn, with staff mopping up the spilled liquor minutes before the 6:30 a.m. community breakfast that precedes mass.
A far cry from other churches, it jives with the neighbourhood. "It's Kensington," says Mr. Sutherland, 58.
At the corner of Bellevue and College, St. Stephen's first offered itself as an event venue in 2005. At the time, the diocese was threatening to close the church if its $400,000 debt was not paid. A group called Friends of St. Stephen's threw together a church-benefit show with Bruce Cockburn and Molly Johnson, and gathered donations so that the church could stay afloat. Since then, it has been renting the space out to entertainers to pay the bills.
It's not quite enough, though. The roof hasn't been touched for 15 years and needs new shingles. "They fly off during high winds, though I'm not sure we should say that, because that would show the dire strain we are in," Mr. Sutherland says. The heating bill is $2,000 a month. He dreams of restoring the hand-painted, gold-leaf Ryder organ, which was built in 1888.
As ramshackle as the place is, musicians love the stunning acoustics. To many, it's a refreshing change of scenery from the club scene where "people drink and don't really pay attention," says Scott Cooper, a local country folkster. "It's Massey Hall on a micro scale."
Acoustic artist Peter Katz played to a candlelit audience on Oct. 17 and East Coast stars such as Julie Doiron and Mike O'Neill from the Inbreds graced the stage for the Over the Top Festival in May.
Not every gig is so subdued - on Dec. 19, the Om Festival Reunion hosted a rave that ran until 5 a.m. Shaggy vegans with dreadlocks bounced up and down while DJs in the sanctuary blasted psychedelic trance. Trippy videos were splashed on the walls to resemble the inside of a fish tank. But it wouldn't be possible without the tireless work of Mr. Sutherland, who supervises and mops up every party (yes, even the raves). "I think Jim's just a warm-hearted, passionate guy who's willing to try anything," Mr. Katz says.
It could be time for something new. "If they had a general curator in place, it may be easier for them," says Eric Warner, founder of the Over the Top Festival.
In the meantime, Mr. Sutherland sees the bustling nightlife as another way to serve the community. "It was God who gave the gift to sing and dance, we might as well use it," he says.
But to sing and dance to psychedelic trance? "There have been no lightning bolts yet," he says.