Entrepreneurial sisters turning former Seaway church into new tourism and hospitality hub

Ky-lee and Sasha Hanson
Sisters Ky-lee, left, and Sasha Hanson, in front of the Oneida Grand Centre.

Two sisters with no connection to the St. Lawrence Seaway are repurposing a piece of local spiritual history into something that could become a significant economic generator.

Ky-Lee and Sasha Hanson, who hail from Montreal and Vancouver Island, paid $360,000 for the former Iroquois United Church and manse, and subsequently invested $300,000 in renovations as they head for a soft opening of their new venture, Oneida Grand Centre, by March 1.

Due to COVID-19, they’ll start with takeout food service followed when possible by a licensed gourmet restaurant and catering business; they’ve already hired an executive chef and installed a commercial kitchen.

Oneida Grand CentreThe operation will eventually include a patio “ballroom” in the church’s former community room for special events, and possibly a boutique hotel in the sanctuary graced with towering coloured glass windows. The wooden church pews will be converted into tables and other compatible furniture.

With the pandemic continuing to loom over the hospitality sector, the idea is to remain flexible and proceed in manageable sections, Ky-Lee emphasized. A recent tour of the space revealed work from reconfiguration to painting and flooring underway throughout the fine old church. Stained glass windows on either side of the altar imported from Holland are still in place, Ky-Lee said, but protected behind new siding.

With the entire population of South Dundas only numbering about 10,800 residents, the Hansons know that Iroquois itself can’t fully support such an ambitious project. Their plan is to draw customers from along the Seaway and north to Ottawa, said Ky-Lee.

Proud of some West Coast Indigenous blood in their background, they named the centre Oneida after an Iroquois tribe, the word meaning “People of the Standing Stone.”

Backstory

Ky-Lee was already an award-winning author, entrepreneur and business owner prior to starting work on launching the Oneida Grand Centre. She’s the publisher of Golden Brick Road Publishing House – her sister Sasha is assistant publisher – which was founded in 2017 and now has some 50 titles in its collection.

She also has seven non-fiction books to her credit with an eighth co-authored coming out in March, mostly related to female empowerment, wellness and self-help. Both sisters have experience in marketing and event planning.

Ky-Lee said it was the former Iroquois church that drew her to the area. The stunning building was built after Seaway construction spelt the end of a previous church that had served the community since 1877. Ontario Hydro spent $421,000 to erect the new spiritual home and manse, which officially opened on Easter Sunday in 1957.

The sale and decommissioning of the church marked the beginning of the end for the Iroquois-Matilda Pastoral Charge, a union of three United churches forged in 2013 as a way to continue covering expenses in the face of dwindling congregations. The history of Iroquois United itself goes back to its Methodist predecessors and construction of a small frame church in 1800.

With the steady decline of people in the pews, repurposing of rural churches has been a growing phenomenon over the past 20 years with many being transformed into private residences with flair. For example, Ian Cunningham of Russell bought the two-tone brick former St. James of Jerusalem Anglican Church on Jellyby Road in North Augusta southwest of Ottawa and uses it for getaways.

The new owners are showing a strong interest in South Dundas economic development, with Sasha joining the municipal tourism advisory committee.

Although months away from opening, Oneida has already made its mark by winning $3,000 from the regional Sparks Program aimed at triggering new tourism opportunities. Their winning concept was a 1950s-style summer picnic with a vintage car show. The project was also awarded a $40,000 grant from the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.

“It’s a fabulous project,” said Rob Hunter, the economic development officer for South Dundas, in which Iroquois is located. He added the project will provide a boost to the South Dundas business tax base and should become a top tourist attraction.