The Deacon's Bench

What happens to a church after it’s closed? Here in New York City, I know of a couple places that have become condos (with awesomely high ceilings and stunning stained glass windows in the master bedroom.) But a reporter at the Religion News Service decided to find out what various religions do when a temple of God shutters for good:

The issue of what to do with former sanctuaries is a growing concern for mainline churches across the nation. Massive population shifts to the suburbs are leaving behind dwindling, financially struggling churches in the cities and inner-ring suburbs.

Church leaders from all denominations find themselves balancing the desire to have someone use the buildings for continued ministry with more practical considerations, such as getting a high sale price.

In a few cases, the buildings are in such disrepair that they must be razed. In most cases, the buildings will be sold or transferred to another church.

But there also have been many instances of imaginative conversions, where the original building is preserved as an architectural jewel in the neighborhood, and the structure can serve the community in such ways as municipal offices, businesses, arts complexes or housing.

Continuing the legacy of a building that for decades served as a spiritual beacon is important, particularly for people grieving the loss of their church, religious leaders say.

Members of a closed church consider it “sacred space given by their ancestors, and they’d like to see it continue as sacred space,” said the Rev. Daniel Drew, who oversees local church mergers for the United Methodist Church.

In the Catholic church, as in other mainline churches, the first preference is that a closed building continue to serve a religious purpose, said the Rev. Ralph Wiatrowski, pastor of St. Barnabas Catholic Church in Northfield, Ohio, and former Cleveland diocesan chancellor.

No Episcopal church will end up as an adult bookstore, said the Rev. Patricia L. Hanen, assistant to the bishop for congregational development in the diocese of Ohio.

“We’re very particular about” selling closed churches, Hanen said. The church wants the building to be “some kind of an asset to another religious group or the community at large,” she said.

In the case of the Heights Youth Club, Fairmount Presbyterian Church raised $100,000, matching a $100,000 challenge grant, to help create a nonprofit corporation to buy the former Heights United Presbyterian Church. The club, which opened in January, offers summer and after-school activities promoting education, recreation and the arts.

Although the youth club is a secular program operated by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland, it fits with church goals of nurturing young people, the Rev. Westfall said.

Among others, artists have found inspiration in closed churches.

St. Josaphat Catholic Church in Cleveland, which closed in 1998, is now Josaphat Arts Hall.

Glass Artist Kathleen Manhattan said she can sense the energy from parish meals, wedding receptions and ceremonies held in the basement of the former church, where she has her Streets of Manhattan Studio.

“It’s still a spiritual place, because art is spiritual,” Manhattan said. “And it’s alive. It’s alive with people. It’s alive with ideas.”

There’s much more at the RNS link that makes you believe that even buildings can have an afterlife.

Photo: Josaphat Arts Hall interior, from its website

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