Former church near St. John’s city centre transforms into a mosque as new Muslim residents feel a dire need for permanent prayer space.
The doors of Gospel Hall at 47 Smith Ave., a former Christian church, is set to swing wide open for a new faith as it transforms into the Al-Falah mosque.
After months of fundraising across Canada to raise the $500,000 cost, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) Newfoundland has successfully acquired a space for Muslim residents to gather, pray and foster a sense of community.
Al-Falah mosque is welcoming people for daily prayers, however, renovations are ongoing.
The decision to repurpose a church into a mosque was under discussion for some time, says treasurer Maruf Dewan.
He says a second mosque was a dire need for St. John’s Muslim residents as the number of Muslims in the province have started to grow significantly in the past few years.
“We had to rent the farmer’s market space for our Friday prayers in at least two sessions – where each would be attended by roughly 100 people,” said Dewan.
The Islamic circle of Newfoundland also functions as a foodbank and an Islamic teaching centre for children which they operate from a rental property owned by St. James United Church on Paton Street.
“It was about time we moved from temporary arrangements,” said Dewan.
The scarcity of prayer spaces is all too familiar to individuals like Abrar Shafi, president of the Muslim Students’ Association at Memorial University.
“Currently we have two rooms allocated for prayers, along with the multi-faith chapel,” said Shafi. “But with over 2,500 members, it’s difficult to make spots for everyone. And the number’s growing exponentially”.
The association says it is working towards getting the old gym space at MUN’s physical education building for its Friday prayers, which sees a large number of visitors from students to faculty members.
The repurposing of a church for a mosque is not a new concept, says local Islamic researcher Dr. Ayse Akinturk.
Several mosques across Canada were previously churches, for example, the Jami Mosque Toronto, one of the city’s oldest mosques, was once a Presbyterian church in the 1930s.
Akinturk says from her research on Canadian Muslims and their experiences, especially in this province, it is evident the population has grown significantly and so has their need for bigger spaces for congregation and celebration.
However, the struggles for many of them move beyond finding a permanent place of worship, it can revolve around a sense of belonging and acceptance.
“People in Newfoundland (and Labrador) are much more welcoming of diverse faiths than rest of Canada”.Ayse Akinturk
“From the interviews we conduct, it is only rare that we hear about an unpleasant encounter someone had because he or she is a Muslim,” said Akinturk.
The researcher says the Islamic history in Newfoundland and Labrador dates to the 1970s. Many physicians, engineers and dentists travelled here for work and settled in the province at a time when the place was struggling to find experts in such fields.
Currently, there are more than 7,500 Muslims living in communities throughout the province.
“People in Newfoundland (and Labrador) are much more welcoming of diverse faiths than rest of Canada,” said Akinturk.
Akinturk says when there is a question raised about how someone speaks, or why they are wearing a hijab, for instance, it comes from a place of curiosity more than discrimination.
“There are occasional incidents, sadly, such as the attack on a couple of teenagers outside their workplace (a) few years ago that shows we are not immune to hate.”
One of the concerns Dewan has is about the mosque location being in the middle of a residential area.
“We want to be extra careful as to not become a nuisance for our neighbours especially during early morning prayers or create traffic congestion,” said Dewan.
Al-Falah mosque or Al-Falah Islamic Centre is open to congregants for the five required daily prayers from 4 to 12 a.m. and soon hopes to complete its renovations for a formal opening.