Old Ottawa South church finds new life as mosque

Imam Syed Soharwardy (front left), chair and founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, stands in front of the former St. Margaret Mary church in Ottawa alongside members of the community. His group is buying the building, with plans to turn it into a mosque and community centre. (Photo provided by Missy Fraser - image credit)
Imam Syed Soharwardy (front left), chair and founder of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, stands in front of the former St. Margaret Mary church in Ottawa alongside members of the community. His group is buying the building, with plans to turn it into a mosque and community centre. (Photo provided by Missy Fraser - image credit)

After sitting empty for three years, the former St. Margaret Mary Church will welcome worshippers and community members into its halls once again — but this time as a mosque.

In November, Imam Syed Soharwardy announced his organization, the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, would be purchasing the Old Ottawa South church.

The group owns 32 mosques across the country, two of which are former churches.

Soharwardy said Old Ottawa South residents can expect more than just a mosque, however, as most of the property will be used for a multi-faith community centre.

"I [want to show] respect because this has been a church for over a century and people are emotionally, spiritually connected with this church," he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

Over the last month, the Calgary-based Soharwardy has been reaching out to people in the community to gather ideas for renewing the property.

Soharwardy said the centre will be home to a senior citizens' group, a music and arts group and a Montessori school for children, among other programs. He hoped it would serve as an example for how different faith groups can live in harmony.

"I'm 100 per cent sure when this [sale] is closed in March, it will be a big nice model for the entire society of Canada and maybe for the world," Soharwardy said.

Photo provided by Missy Fraser
Photo provided by Missy Fraser

Original structure will be preserved

For Missy Fraser, Soharwardy's vision is a positive one.

"It's wonderful to me that it's going to continue to be a place of worship as it has been for the past century — but also continue to be a place of service to others," said Fraser, a longtime parishioner at St. Margaret Mary until it closed in 2019 due to a lack of funds.

"We're keeping the past, but we're moving into the future."

Soharwardy said he's gathered a lot of support from the community because he has no plans to demolish the church and is promising to limit renovations to its interior.  The property listing for the site described it as "ideal for residential development" and highlighted its potential for a five-storey building with 40 units.

Julie Ireton/CBC
Julie Ireton/CBC

"Community spaces, [we] can't recreate them when we lose them. And they're quite the treasure," said Fraser, whose father was an altar boy at St. Margaret Mary in the 1940s.

Soharwardy said his group is buying the property for $2.5 million. Though parishioners had hoped to see the sale's profits go toward residential school survivors, the archdiocese has refused to donate the funds, saying instead they would support survivors through community donations and other avenues.

The imam hopes to see the sale close in March, just in time to welcome Muslim worshippers for Ramadan.

"I have been trying quite hard for the last several years to find property in Ottawa. And finally that has been possible now," he said.