Cast-off churches for sale

churches and developmentKate Moran of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans produced a tremendous story for the Religion News Service, which was subsequently picked up by The Washington Post about the “cultural conversion of cast-off churches.” It’s a sad story in many ways, but the growing trend of lost church buildings is one that local journalists desperately need to start telling. It is a huge part of the larger story of what is happening in American cities from coast to coast:

The McColl Center for Visual Art, a project that rescued a historic building from demolition and served as an economic jolt for a struggling corner of the city, provides a lesson for what might become of the two dozen churches that the Archdiocese of New Orleans plans to close and deconsecrate as part of a massive post-Katrina downsizing plan.

Archbishop Alfred Hughes has said he hopes to continue using the vast portfolio of decommissioned real estate to further the mission of the church or serve the common good. The archdiocese says it would sell its buildings to a developer only as a last resort.

But as priestly vocations have declined and church closings have become a fact of life across the country, many houses of worship have passed into the hands of developers, who have converted them to banquet halls, music clubs and condominiums.

Earlier this year The Chicago Tribune had a similar story about how abandoned churches are being converted into fancy condo buildings. I can report that Indianapolis now has at least two former churches that have been or are being converted into condo buildings and another old church is now home to two restaurants (which serves excellent food by the way).

As for the RNS story, it does a good job surveying trends around the country and captures the national trend from an economic and religious perspective.

There is a sense throughout the story that the topic is sacred, but more direct answers are needed to serious questions that surround this unfortunate trend. What is being lost as church buildings and all the community effort poured into the buildings drifts away? How many rich histories and cultural and spiritual traditions are being lost as these grand buildings become something other than the cultural and spiritual center of the communities they used to represent?

Consider what a community’s reaction would be if a condo developer turned a grassy green park with benches and a some playground equipment in which generations of neighborhood residents played and relaxed into a 7-story condo building? From a pure economic and social standpoint, the loss of a house of worship to something as inspiring as yet another condo building is far greater than the loss of a park. And don’t think I am trying to at all minimize the value of parks to a community’s well being.

Here is the RNS article:

Churches are best used as churches, of course, and in many cases a growing congregation will buy one from an older denomination that can no longer sustain it. That’s what happened in Boston, where the archdiocese retired 44 churches several years ago. About a quarter ended up being used by other religious groups.

Sarah Comiskey, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said the church hopes to keep as many buildings as possible within the ambit of the Catholic faith. Catholic Charities, for example, has converted St. Cecilia Church into a day center for the elderly.

Elmore Rigamer, medical director of Catholic Charities, said it was more expensive to renovate the church than to erect a more utilitarian building from scratch. But the church setting, with its stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings, gives the senior center’s clients a sense of peace.

Consider the magnitude of the spiritual loss behind each of these buildings, and one can’t help but wonder about the theological and spiritual dimensions behind the many stories that could be told. Each city is different, and each church building has a different story to tell. Reporters covering anything from development to community life cannot underplay the significance of this huge religion story.

Photo taken by the author of this post on Monday in a near northeast side Indianapolis neighborhood.

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  • Richard Barrett

    The harsh reality in a place where religion is subject to market forces is simply this: tradition is expensive. This is not the same as “not worth it,” just so we’re clear, but I think the more distanced we become from a time when those traditions played an active role in our lives, the harder it becomes to justify to those writing the checks. This is vaguely hinted at in the comment about the stained glass windows proving “a sense of peace” to the elderly, but it is an element which seems to be largely ignored by the story otherwise.

    Church architecture and all the trappings developed largely in a day when there was state support to pay for it. We’re finding out in this country just what “the people” can afford/are willing to pay for, and for the most part, it ain’t Hagia Sophia, folks.


  • t-hype

    Down here in Nashville there’s a strip club in an old church building. It’s not far from Hustler Hollywood.

  • Ananta Androscoggin

    too bad the story didn’t cover anything about the vast number of people who are unable to conceive (despite a lifetime of teaching to the contrary) that there might be other places on this earth besides a church building for them to find communion with Deity.

  • Don

    “Church architecture and all the trappings developed largely in a day when there was state support to pay for it.”

    That’s funny. I can’t remember a time in this nation’s history that the government paid for any part of a church building. Growing congregations in the 40s and 50s found it easy to build on and beautify. But declining congregations find that utilitarian structures leave them more options.

    There are a lot of unexplored issues here. I wonder how many of the growing congregations who buy someone else’s old church building find them suitable. I suspect that many of them buy maintenance issues that are beyond their ability to handle. They the buy the building of a much larger congregation without having the resources to care for it.

    I’d like to know what condo residents feel about living in a former church – or people in those neighborhoods. When the church was closed, where did the congregation go? Are they all defunct? Or did some, like the Greek Orthodox church that left the lovely building in downtown Ann Arbor a few years ago, build more spacious facilities elsewhere?

  • Kevin

    Thanks for drawing attention to an area of city life that I believe is vital and rapidly disappearing. The buildings of churches have long been a staple feature of urban communities in the U.S. But in what Leonard Sweet calls a “post-Christendom” nation, church buildings are now viewed as real estate commodities that often command higher prices for their uniqueness.

    I’ve researched and blogged about this topic locally here in Chicago ( I could walk you to 11 former church buildings surrounding where I pastor that are now condos, single family homes, climbing centers, and tear downs. Our approach is revitalizing/restarting churches where the congregations have declined over the years. We’ve done 6 “restarts” and we hope more urban churches join us in that trend. Buildings are a stewardship responsibility and can be redeemed without discarding their history and legacy.

  • Brendan

    For a few years, I lived in a Condo that was built over a church – in fact, my living room was in the top of the bell tower.

    The builder struck a deal with the church so that the condo was built on floors 2 and up, and the church remained on the main floor. Granted, almost the entire structure of the church was demo’ed in the rebuild, but it allowed the church to remain in the community, and the condo to be built above it. Maybe that’s a possibility for some of these old buildings – incorporate them into new development, and retain some of their previous function?

    Times are tough, congregations are smaller, law suits are piling up – these are just facts of life now.


  • TheRevolutionWillNotBeTelevised

    What follows is the thoughts of a man who spent momst of his school years in a Catholic school system…

    When I was younger, a thought I used to have on many occasions was that this country would not advance to a better place until the expansion of churches stopped. When I became old enough to drive, I was dismayed to see that the building of churches in what was once wide open space was continuing without pause all over the country.

    Reading this article is the first glint of hope I have seen that this period of materialistic ‘relgion’ might be coming to an eventual end.

    In the end, its just a building, and a religion whos followers are unaware just how far off base they are in their beliefs about a collection of bricks being so important, is not what I have ever believed the concept of religion to embody.

    Community, compassion, empathy, understanding, and a progression of the entire human race are what is important. Those concepts are untouched by the passage of time, building are not.

  • Oliver Kenton

    This is an encouraging sign that America is finally starting to shed itself of its superstition. I only hope that in the process some beautiful buildings are not destroyed. Here in England our church attendance has thankfully dropped to the point where many, many churches are now apartments. Its clearly a good sign, we get some beautiful looking buildings to live in (much nicer than those glass and steel ones, and way better than the tatty 1970s concrete ones), the church weakens further (oh for the day when Bishops don’t sit in the house of lords) and we become a better, more tolerant society.
    After years of depressing news about America’s religious mania, this is finally encouraging news.

  • Richard Barrett

    Don: when I said “state support,” I didn’t mean this country. Look up who paid for the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople. It wasn’t paid for with a bake sale.

    Regarding your other question — there’s a Greek Orthodox parish in Indianapolis, Holy Trinity, which has long been located in a fairly tony area of town. Trouble is, the church building was built at a time when traditional architecture and iconography was being actively downplayed by various parties for various reasons. Now they’re building a bigger building in the fashion of traditional Byzantine churches (it helps to have 2,000 people in your parish with a donor list spanning at least a 120-mile radius), but what do they do with the old building?

    I’m not sure selling the building to another church was ever formally considered. First they tried to sell it to a school — the neighborhood association nixed that option. Now it appears they’ve sold it to Indianapolis Opera, an idea far more to the liking of their presumptive neighbors.

    Then you have the Antiochian parish that’s in a very similar boat. They appear, in fact, to be trying to sell their old building to another church — and curiously enough, one possibility appears to be selling it to a group of current parishioners who don’t want to move with the rest of the community, aren’t thrilled about joining the smaller Antiochian community elsewhere in town (which does not yet have its own building), and would be perfectly content to start a new mission in the old building. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.