“We left the city to fix up a small-town church. A year later, our daughter begged us to move back”: Why we’re returning to Toronto

“We left the city to fix up a small-town church. A year later, our daughter begged us to move back”: Why we’re returning to Toronto

After the $1-million renovation, we were ready to go home, but the town wasn’t ready for us to leave

More from the Homecoming Club

Who: Jason Rioux, 43, and Victoria Rioux, 43
What he does: Manager at an energy company
What she does: Owner of the Chapleau Hub
Their trajectory: Little Italy to Chapleau, Ontario, to Little Italy

Jason: I’m originally from Chapleau, a small town north of Sault Ste. Marie. After high school, I went to the University of Waterloo to study mathematics.

Victoria: I grew up in Toronto but also went to Waterloo. That’s where we met—we were in the same program.

Jason: After graduating, we both moved to Toronto for work. In 2010, we bought a five-bedroom, one-bath brick semi in Little Italy for $866,000.

Victoria: In 2015, we heard from the minister of the Anglican church in Chapleau, a man named Tom Corston.

Jason: He said the congregation could no longer afford to stay in the church. They couldn’t even pay the cost of upkeep. By that point, the only remaining parishioners were a handful of 80-year-olds.

Victoria: We have a strong connection to the place. Jason’s parents were married there. Our kids were baptized there.

Jason: I offered to buy the building from the regional church diocese and let the congregation stay at a reduced cost, but the conversation ended there. Then, a year later, we got a phone call from Tom. He said, “Okay, we’re ready to do the deal. You’re going to buy the church.”

The Riouxes (from left to right): Jason, Hunter, Céleste, Victoria and Renée

Victoria: We bought the place knowing it would require extensive renovations. We saw it as a rescue operation that could potentially result in a long-term investment return.

Jason: It’s a gorgeous brick structure built back in the early 1900s, located beside the town hall and on the Kebsquasheshing River. But the exterior needed a lot of attention. The walls were weathered and eroded, the corners of the building were gone, the concrete steps were missing chunks.

Victoria: The church was on the main floor. It had beautiful paintings on the walls and original stained glass. Downstairs, there were Sunday school rooms and a soup kitchen. But there was zero character down there. It had drop ceilings, red carpeting, wood panelling and drywall.

Jason: Right away, we wanted to gut the basement while leaving the main floor intact as a church. We got help from a not-for-profit called Culture of Small, which is a bunch of architects who donate part of their time to work on small initiatives.

Victoria: From 2016 to 2017, we demolished the basement and turned it into a commercial space. That way, it could be used for retail or a restaurant. In a small town, you don’t always know how these places will be used for the next 100 years, and we wanted it to be multifunctional. Think Schitt’s Creek, where the local taxi driver may also be the hairstylist.

Jason: We put in a new entrance, accessible washrooms, a commercial kitchen with a wood-fired pizza oven, and new plumbing and electrical. But we also preserved the building’s historical character. We exposed the stone foundation walls, the wooden beams hidden under the drop ceilings, and the steel railway-track posts that held up the main floor. Now, it looks like something from the Distillery District.

The Riouxes in the post-reno church basement

Victoria: Keep in mind, we did this all while living in Little Italy with our three kids, Céleste, Hunter and Renée.

Jason: When Covid hit, in March 2020, I started working remotely from our place in Little Italy, and the kids did online school.

Victoria: And I was working on my own as an independent marketing consultant.

Jason: That summer, we tried to figure out what to do for the upcoming school year. Renée and Hunter would be in elementary school, and Céleste was starting middle school across town.

Victoria: Each school had kids being bussed in from across the GTA, which seemed unsafe during a pandemic.

Jason: We also knew the provincial government would put tight restrictions in place—masks, cohorting, the works—making life more difficult in the city. So we decided to rent out our place in Little Italy and move to Chapleau for the next school year. By September, we were living with my parents in my childhood home. It’s a three-bed, one-bath, just 1,000 square feet across two storeys. There were seven of us living there, which, looking back, probably wasn’t the best idea.

Victoria: I had never seen a bathroom so small. It was like the toilet on an airplane or cruise ship. And I think we were driving his mother crazy. I knew we needed our own space. In May 2021, the congregation moved out of the upstairs and into another church where they could save even more money, leaving a big open space. We decided to renovate it and live there, at least until the end of the Toronto lockdown. Obviously, we hadn’t planned on doing a renovation in the middle of the pandemic. It was still a full-on church.

Jason: We turned the main floor into a castle-like residential suite, adding an open-concept kitchen; a 16-foot-long dining table with big bishop chairs from the church; a living area with big couches, a TV and a craft space for the kids; a library wall in the choir section, creating separation for a main bedroom; and bunk beds for the kids.

Victoria: We also updated the washroom, adding a shower and heated floors. And we kept a lot of the original church pieces, like the pulpit, stained glass, paintings and even the 20-foot-tall pipe organ. It felt like we were in a museum. Renovations finished that fall for a total of $1 million.

Jason: At some point during the upstairs overhaul, the tenants in the basement—a couple running a restaurant—left. Victoria said, “We’re going to be living upstairs, so let’s own and operate the restaurant in the basement.”

Victoria: I started Chapleau Hub, a café and restaurant. I thought it would be an interesting family experiment. We brought in an espresso machine, hosted concerts and comedy shows. It soon became a community hub. There’s a lack of establishments in the area. And, recently, there’s been growth in local industry, with a new gold mine opening up nearby. So people have money to spend.

Jason: I would work remotely in our unit upstairs, then go downstairs and wait on tables or put pizzas in the oven. The kids helped out too.

Victoria: But we’re not long-term restaurant operators. That restaurant is a money-making machine. For context, we would typically rent the space out for $3,000 a month plus utilities. And we could make that much in two Friday nights. Even still, it should be run full time by someone with serious experience, not us hobbyists.

Jason: In May, our eldest, Céleste, pleaded with us to move back to Toronto. She’s got a good friend group there. Hunter and Renée are younger and have less of an attachment to their friend groups, so they were more flexible about moving. We promised to return to the city at the end of the school year.

Victoria: I also wanted a better food scene. We used to eat out all the time in Little Italy. In Chapleau, the food scene is limited, the grocery store is limited. And all of Jason’s work is in Toronto, so moving back made sense for him.

Jason in front of the family’s Little Italy home

Jason: We put the church on the market for $1.2 million, accounting for the $1 million in upgrades. In reality, we’ll be here until the building sells or we find someone to take over the space in the basement. We’re no longer accepting any rentals at our place in Little Italy, which we had listed on Airbnb, so it will be open whenever we want to move back.

Victoria: I guess we could just close the Chapleau Hub and take off, but the community needs it as a gathering space. And the youth love it. They run karaoke there every week.

Jason: I’m on the town council, and everyone is bugging me to run in the next election.

Victoria: Since we put the church up for sale, everyone has asked if we would stick around. After two years of living in Chapleau, we’re ready to go home, but I don’t think the town is ready for us to leave.