Music seems to spill onto the serene Church Street as the women of Eastside Harmony warm up their voices inside the St. Francis Centre. It’s Thursday evening practice and the Pickering-based group has only been practising in the centre for a few months.
Heather Montague, who is part of the management team has been singing tenor for the group for 20 years. She feels as though the centre has become a home for Eastside Harmony.
“It feels kind of like a family and it’s really nice. We are really thrilled with the space,” Montague said.
St. Francis Centre started its life in 1871 as a church. In 1991, it was designated an Ajax heritage building. In 2007, the parishioners of the church abandoned the space and the Town of Ajax decided to redefine the purpose of the building.
With the help of federal, provincial and municipal funding, the town embarked on a $3.5-million revitalization project to transform the old church into the St. Francis Centre for Community, Arts and Culture. Robert Gruber, manager of community and cultural development for the Town of Ajax believes that the project is integral to the community.
“This is how I judge whether we’ve done something good for the community,” Gruber said. “When a past parishioner comes back and tells you that you have done a good job, then you know you’ve done something right.”
Gruber explained that there is a lack of affordable arts and culture space in Ajax for local art groups to utilize for practice, exhibition or storage. The centre has seating for 137 people. It lends itself well to art groups such as Eastside Harmony because of the professional lighting, retractable seats, multi-purpose stage, dressing rooms and storage space.
“We tried to make it as multi-purpose and multi-functional (as possible) knowing what could happen in here,” Gruber said.
The Eastside Harmony chorus is a member of Sweet Adeline International, the world’s largest singing organization for women. It uses the space to practise for their annual competition in Syracuse, N.Y. Rob Snoulten, director of the chorus for 5 years, said the centre provides a wonderful opportunity for the group.
“We get the use of the professional lights and the stage and we are able to have an audience,” Snoulten said. “It gives us a little bit more preparation to get used to singing in front of people.”
Gruber believes the centre can bring the people of the community together. Gruber said, events such as a Second City comedy show called “iLove,” a Community Concert Band of Whitby musical performance called “Sounds of Christmas,” and an Ajax Community Theatre production called “Dial ‘M’ For Murder,” can foster artistic growth in the community.
“(People) want to live in a place that has culture, arts and has recreation opportunities,” Gruber said.
Michelle Dunne, cultural programmer for the St. Francis Centre, said the community has responded positively to the centre revitalization. The building has remained a space for the community to gather and interact, she said.
“I love it that people just come in off the street and want to see it because I am happy to share it with them,” Dunne said. “Truly we want to share it with everybody.”
Montague sees the centre as the perfect space for Eastside Harmony.
“We are thrilled now to be back in the community,” Montague said. “We’ve been through some hard times and we’ve stuck together. We’re a good support group and I think that we just enjoy what we’re doing.”