Church conversions to condos

Indy church converted to condoTo my great satisfaction, a journalist has given serious coverage to the religious angle in the ongoing story of old churches being converted to new condos. Kathy McCabe of The Boston Globe does an excellent job of wading into the religious and spiritual significance of sacred places of worship being converted into high-end condo buildings.

I have fussed about this twice this year (see Chicago Tribune here and Religion News Service here): the religious and spiritual angle in these stories does not get enough attention. The RNS was a great improvement over the Tribune, but The Globe asks some questions that have gone unanswered until now:

When developer Tony Pace had the chance to turn the 100-year-old former Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ipswich into a luxury condo, he sought the blessing of a parish priest.

“I needed to be sure it was OK,” said Pace, 45, who was raised Catholic in Medford. “He told me that if I treated it with respect, there was nothing wrong with it.”

Guilt about turning a house of worship into a high-end home isn’t limited to crib Catholics.

Karnig Ostayan asked his Armenian pastor to bless the former St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church in Watertown, before turning the church and rectory into 11 upscale condos.

“I want to sleep at night,” joked Ostayan, who attends St. James Armenian Apostolic Church, across Mt. Auburn Street. “Seriously, I know how much this church meant to people.”

The article does a good job exploring the churches’ decision-making process and procedures when they sell off their sacred properties. One also gets the sense that if developers were not grabbing these properties, other churches would not be finding a home in the buildings. In some ways, the condominium developers are stepping up to preserve at least some of the beauty of these buildings.

One also gets the sense that there is a certain amount of spiritual guilt present in this story. Check out the irony of former churches becoming $1 million luxury condominiums:

Indy church converted to condo

When selling a church, the archdiocese issues a request for proposals. The goal is to select a buyer whose plan is consistent with church teachings and social mission. The archdiocese pulled out from a deal to turn a Quincy church into a clinic that would have provided counseling on abortion. The former Blessed Sacrament Church in Jamaica Plain is being turned into a mix of upscale, market-rate, and affordable condominiums. The final call on any property sale lies with Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley.

“In general, the cardinal likes to hear about things that are here to help people,” Peterson said.

Even if that includes luxury condos, some priced at over $1 million.

“It is providing someone with housing,” said Peterson.

Yes, the church is providing someone with housing. The White House also provides someone with housing.

Okay, enough of my sarcasm. There is also a beautiful photo gallery that goes with the story, which appears in the newspaper’s real estate section. Overall, I get the sense that McCabe understands that faith is important and that these churches as sacred places matter.

The one angle that I am still hoping for journalists to cover here is the community perspective. Once a church and its community has been replaced by condominiums, what institution is expected to serve the community’s spiritual needs? On the other hand, has the community changed to a degree that local church life is no longer a priority? Are any of these new condo dwellers attending church outside their immediate communities? Perhaps the mega-church in the suburbs?

Photos, taken by the author of this post, are of former downtown Indianapolis churches which have been converted into high-end condo buildings.

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  • Julia

    The first time I saw a church turned into a residence it was the church hosting Alice’s Restaurant in the Arlo Guthrie movie of the same name, where the pot smoking hippies also lived – in sin. Luxury condos might be a bit more upscale these days, but I’ll bet there is still pot smoking and sin going on in these former churches.

    My area has some wonderful restaurants that used to be churches. A former church in St Louis and its school are being used as rock and jazz venues.

    In the meantime, it’s getting harder for my chorale to find inexpensive venues in current, real churches where we can perform classic vocal pieces written to be sung in un-carpeted, un-acoutical tiled and un-amplified churches. Oh, the irony. We sang “The Creation” in one of those new mega-churches and the upholstery and carpets absorbed most of the sound. Even the Catholics are failing to have appropriate spaces for classic sacred music in their new churches.

  • Mattk

    There are two similar things going on in the San Francisco Bay Area. First, many old church buildings have been damaged in earthquakes and the churches do not have the money to repair them and make safe to use. This is especially true in San Francisco, where the Catholic Archdiocese recently sold St. Brigid’s Church to an art school. This phenomenon has been well covered by local media.

    Second, there is a strange practice of churches in Silicon Valley (about 40 miles south of San Francisco) to buy or lease industrial buildings and convert them into churches. Not far from where I am sitting now is a large church that meets in a building that two years ago was a circuit board factory. Even more odd is when churches build to look like the surrounding Silicon Valley factories. (The amazingly popular ALCF is one example.) This latter computer-factory-church aesthetic has not been covered by anyone, as far as I know.

  • Tom S

    Sacred sites retooled for secular purposes … let me count the ways in the Midwest: A bed & breakfast; a women’s health clinic; a law office; a community theater. I could go on.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Mattk: I know someone who has a managerial position in that art school. He told me that the owner (real estate acquirer masquerading as an educations institution) has gone into St. Brigid’s, restored the stained glass throughout, repainted, repaired damage from neglect, etc. This is more like a “sacred site restored for XXX purposes” …. and it isn’t classroom education.

  • LiturgicalRobot

    Disclaimer: not for the faint hearted. This one is so wrong on so many levels I can’t even stress this enough.

    Check out PENDRAGON HALL in Tasmania, Australia. Click play on the video.

    nb: I disagree when she said it’s not a place of worship any longer. How about self worship?

  • Pastor K

    Twenty years ago, maverick Christian singer-songwriter Steve Taylor wrote a song: “This Disco Used to a be a Cute Cathedral”. Doesn’t seem like such a strange idea anymore.

    I also know of a United Methodist multi-church appointment that considered taking one of its buildings and turning it into the pastor’s parsonage.

    I’m glad that the reporter asked these important spiritual questions, but an underlying question that should be asked of clergy officials who are considering selling unused church property: “What makes the space sacred, and what makes it no longer sacred?”

    And if we really want to get technical, the opposite of sacred is profane. Which leads to this question: “Is reuse of church property for non-worship use, by definition, profane?”

  • R.S.Newark

    The Church should consider – at some great expense – razing, taking down the physical building itself in order to avoid any perception of misuse. It’s the land that has the value not the building. The Church doesn’t owe a real estate developer a physical building to misuse.