Southern Ohio congregation creates co-working space at church, offers onsite childcare

Posted Nov 7, 2023

[Diocese of Southern Ohio] The leaders of Church of the Advent in Cincinnati couldn’t have known what they had set in motion when they hired Schickel Design to draft plans for the renovation of the extensive non-worship spaces of their building. But Rebecca Dorff Cadena, Schickel’s president, had an idea for a co-working space that offered onsite child care, and Advent had a commitment to putting its indoor and outdoor spaces at the service of the wider Walnut Hills community. And so a partnership was born.

Caalma, which offers childcare in the newly renovated basement in the central section of the church building, a coffee-shop-like communal gathering area on the first floor, and rental offices, desks and private meeting rooms on the second floor, opened last November. Its child-care capacity is 15, and Cadena estimates that the three-person staff cares for about a dozen children on any given day. Not everyone who rents working space requires childcare, however, and Cadena says about 15 people use the co-working areas each day.

The idea for Caalma, which is short of Casa de Alma, or home of the soul, came to Cadena largely from an understanding of her own needs. She had been a freelance architect in New York, “trying to piece together life” since the births of her three children, and while she didn’t want a full-time office job outside her home, she didn’t want to stop working either.

“I was feeling this need for community, and it wasn’t there,” she said. “And finding child care in a flexible way wasn’t there either.”

Those needs didn’t go away when Cadena and her family moved to Cincinnati in 2017 to be close to family and allow her to take over Schickel Design. She knew other parents had needs similar to hers and was developing the concept that grew into Caalma when the Rev. Jason Oden, who was then priest-in-charge at Advent, and is now the diocese’s canon for formation and new Episcopal communities, contacted her in 2020. He was interested in renovating the non-liturgical sections of the church building, which dates to the late 1850s. As it happened, the space Advent wanted was the kind of space Caalma needed. More than that, it fit the church’s mission.

“The conversation grew from the realization that maybe we were all working on the same project,” said the Rev. Dan Carlson, who succeeded Oden as the parish’s priest-in-charge. The church, he said, was asking itself, “what is the way to make the space useful and accessible to people in our neighborhood,” and Cadena’s vision for Caalma fit in well with what he described as “a new concept of village life.”

Much of Advent’s outreach work in recent years has focused on issues of food scarcity and food justice, but with newly renovated indoor space, it had an opportunity to invite “another aspect of the neighborhood” into the church.

Parishioners and neighbors interact with Caalma’s 30 members in the shared coffee-shop-like area on the first floor of the church’s central section, and church groups use that gathering space, and a small adjacent kitchen, for meetings and group meals after Caalma closes shop at 6 p.m.

“It’s a unique relationship, and requires a lot of communications and patience from both sides, but it’s been wonderful,” Cadena said.

The parish uses two of the offices on the same hallway as those Caalma rents to members, and Cadena keeps an office there as well, Carlson said. That makes communications easier, but he said there was more to the relationship than that.

“There are moments I stop and reflect on the fact we have a kind of trust that any two groups you threw together might not have,” Carlson said. “We didn’t come into this never having met before. We came into it knowing we could work together and had similar ideas about the role of churches in a changing world.”

Advent is not alone in seeking ways to invite its neighbors onto church grounds and into church buildings. Efforts to make better use of church buildings, and perhaps develop an income stream in the process, have been underway churchwide for more than a decade.

But Carlson said efforts to weave the church more closely into the community look a little different at Advent than at most other churches. A majority of the congregation has been attending the church for three years or less. They are younger than most Episcopalians and have spent less time in the church.

“This coffee-house-type space that is available throughout the week is interesting to folks who are just beginning to cement their relationship with the parish and with the church,” he said. These new Episcopalians are also drawn to outreach ministries, such as the congregation’s Good News Garden, food pantry and common orchard.

“The congregation has been here since 1855,” Carlson said. “But it feels like a church plant. There are so many folks who are still jelling and still forming the heart of the community.” Among the church’s next priorities, he said, are finding a partner to work out of the large kitchen in the church’s basement and developing Advent’s outdoor spaces to make them more welcoming to the community.