Little church becomes a house/studio
This little building was once the Good Shepherd Mission, the first Anglican mission to the Chinese population in Canada. It's in Strathcona, Vancouver's oldest neighbourhood, a few blocks east of Chinatown. The main part of the church was built in 1935, but a smaller section of the building - what you see in the exterior shot above - was built some time before that, exact year not known but likely between 1931 and 1933. The building is mentioned in Wayson Choy's award-winning books "The Jade Peony" and "Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood" and at one point Choy lived right next door, in that house to the right. I've talked to him about the place and he told me he spent a lot of time playing over at the mission, which was usually full of kids. When the Good Shepherd Mission moved to a fancier location, they sold this building to the Vietnamese United Church who operated it from about 1979 to about 1997, when they too moved to a bigger building. A couple bought the church from them, lived here for about five years, and then sold it to me.

There's something deceptive about the building. From the street it looks like a tiny cottage or church, probably a residual effect of the fact that what you see from the street is in fact the tiny 40-person church it once was. However the 1935 extension takes the building almost all the way to the back lane, so you feel as if you're opening a little door onto a giant expanse. The main hall is only about 23' x 75' from the front door to the back of the altar, and at 13'10" the ceilings aren't even double height, but it feels large.

The architecture is simple, a balloon wall structure with an exposed Douglas fir scissor truss roof and ceiling. The fir is old-growth and is extremely strong, dense wood, very resistant to mold.

I had intended to paint the dark brown ceiling white, which would have been the easiest way of lightening up the very dark main hall, but since the ceiling and trusses are the building's best architectural feature, and since the climate is often drab, it seemed that the effect would be warmer if I sanded the ceiling and exposed the wood. This turned out to be an epic project. Once sanded, the old Douglas fir was so red that the ceiling threw an almost pink light over everything, and I ended up bleaching it, board by board. It is now light enough that you can actually read indoors in the daytime without artificial light, a big improvement, and in Vancouver's grey, rainy climate, it feels bright even when it's dreary out.

After I'd lived in the church for a couple of years, a friend brought a friend of hers over, a woman whose family had gone to the church when she was a child. I asked her if she thought it was weird that I was living in the building, or if it felt awful for her to be there, and she said no, the place felt better. I'd like to thank her - she's also an archivist - for all of the historical scans in this Flickr set. One day she just surprised me with an envelope of materials about the church and I'm finally publicly thanking her.

Other members of the congregation have since stopped by to talk to me, and it seems that for many of them it was not a negative place but an important life-saving refuge. The pastor and his family lived here, and they allowed many women who were poor or were victims of domestic trouble to spend their days and sometimes nights here. I also found evidence that someone had slept in the tiny basement furnace room. It would be nice to know more about the history of this place.
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