Catholic Parishes on the Chopping Block? Don’t Sell Them — Do This Instead …

COMMENTARY: A project in South Bend, Indiana, illustrates that underused space can be repurposed to assist the Church in its mission today.

An aerial view of South Bend
An aerial view of South Bend (photo: Shutterstock)

The hemorrhage of the physical assets of the Catholic Church in the United States goes on unabated. Parish “consolidations” or outright closures continue, often reported in a one-sided and approving way by diocesan press, uncritical of a bishop’s decisions. These sell-offs are often called “responsible stewardship” and even sometimes touted in Orwellian terms as “renewing the local Church” through its managed destruction. 

Its defenders and bottom-line types retort, “Well, what else can we do? Look at the numbers!” 

Some students at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture may be showing what else can be done through a creative project in South Bend, Indiana. 

St. Hedwig’s and St. Patrick’s were two ethnic Catholic parishes a block apart that now function through one pastor. Each has a full panoply of parish facilities: rectory, convent, school, parking lots. The former was the Polish parish, the latter the Irish parish in town. Like many other Rust Belt cities, South Bend has experienced deindustrialization, decline and urban exodus. It has also been lucky enough to have Notre Dame’s School of Architecture nearby.

That, coupled with South Bend’s readiness to reinvest in the city, has generated municipal and university plans for moderate, community-focused initiatives to bring more simple, affordable and beautiful housing into town to anchor and stabilize — essentially to revive — urban neighborhood life near South Bend’s historic center. 

One such initiative was undertaken by professor Philip Bess with some students in the School of Architecture to repopulate the mostly vacant 8-acre diocese-owned site on the city’s southwest side on which sit St. Hedwig’s and St. Patrick’s. Working with the pastor of the now-consolidated parish and leaders of St. Thomas More Academy — a fast-growing elementary school with ambitions to become K-12 — the block is being redeveloped in a piecemeal way to do three things: 

  •  visually connect and celebrate the two existing church buildings as neighborhood assets; 
  •  provide new buildings and spaces for the parish and the school; and
  • make modest but beautiful and durable housing and mid-block spaces for both teaching staff and married university students as components of a stable parish community that both supports the respective missions of the parish and the school and contributes to the revitalization of the larger neighborhood. 

The South Bend project tallies with the Architecture School’s motto: “Design for good.” 

Skeptics might say it’s nice that two parishes might find a better future, but the lessons of the South Bend project deserve imitation on a broader, even national, scale.

Consider the parish properties that are typically found on a bishop’s chopping block. They’re usually a large urban property with a perhaps-still-operating school, probably a defunct convent, some other meeting space, an oversized rectory and parking facilities. Sometimes there are even multiplications of such facilities, as in South Bend, where two such parish plants occupied adjacent blocks, or my hometown — Perth Amboy, New Jersey — where what used to be the Slovak and Italian parishes were a block apart, with two churches, two parking areas, schools (in the case of the Italians, on a lower floor), convents and rectory. 

All that property is paid for. It’s all off the tax rolls because of religious exemptions. Sure, you can sell it off to a developer for an immediate cash flow.

Or you could think about how to repurpose it for the Church’s mission today.

There is little immediate urgency to dispose of the property: Bishops are not paying taxes on the assets. With respect to underused land, this can be a benefit because it means a diocese can develop its property slowly, thoughtfully and prudently. Sure, parishes need to attend to minimal maintenance, especially for unused and underused buildings. But how can the Church proactively leverage the assets it possesses to advance its mission and reaffirm its commitment to a town or city today?

The South Bend project shows that what has become underused space can be redeveloped to advance the Church’s mission — religiously, educationally and in the community — under current conditions. The church building survives. The schools stabilize urban areas and provide education to city kids and their parents seeking opportunities often lacking in public schools. Urban environments suddenly become reinhabited. And cities get new leases on life.

Notre Dame’s Architecture School has shown a great interest in the “new urbanism,” a movement that claims our urban design and construction models for the last 75 years have become increasingly anti-human because they undermine the communal relationships, long-term economic prosperity and well-tended natural and agricultural environments essential to human flourishing across generations. 

Instead of contiguous, mixed-use communities, postwar prosperity and transportation parceled life into discrete sectors: work here, shops there, school over here, houses over there. Although all those aspects of life must be lived, often every day, our ability to do so is dependent on cars because we have arranged our lives over physical spaces we cannot otherwise reach. 

Traditional European and American towns and cities — indeed, most places in the world before 1945 — don’t look like this. Places to live, eat, work, play, learn and worship were (and are) in greater proximity to each other and when artfully located and arranged constituted a rich fabric of places that are precisely the historic physical form of communities. A gnostic disregard for embodied human nature tied to beautiful buildings and public spaces is precisely what is represented in our current urban and suburban models of far-flung human settlement.

America’s current urban landscape was the product of a postwar boom — demographically and economically — that encouraged urban sprawl enabled by cars and roads. It made possible the emptying of cities. With a shrinking and aging population, economic uncertainties, rising fuel costs and environmental concerns, this model of urban life is likely unsustainable in the future. 

But it’s not just a question of “We want to but can’t continue” building this way; it’s a question of “Should we?” Urban design that chops people’s residential, work, school, commercial and social lives into separate and disconnected spaces is essentially inhuman. People aren’t “invested” anywhere where every place is transitory. 

These phenomena will affect how we live in the future, including where and how we live physically. It’s time for a broader conversation and for the Church to be a proactive and intelligent participant.

How many other underused Church properties in places like Perth Amboy, Detroit, Chicago, Newark, Buffalo, etc., could be renewed in a similar way? Instead of losing a physical property asset permanently, it is repurposed in a way that continues the Church’s mission, especially among the poor (which, in America, increasingly includes the working and lower-middle classes) and marginalized? How is that not a better ecclesiastical response than cut-and-run, generating a temporary capital infusion likely to be spent quickly in support of assets from which one has not yet cut-and-run?

Ours is a sacramental Church, which means it is incarnate in real places. Let’s face it: Selling property means a foreseeable disconnect from that place in the future. Working with creative thinking like Notre Dame’s new urbanist architects, local governments desperate for urban renewal, and a Church whose mission in every place is to be, not flee, aren’t there better ways to address the changes in the landscape of the Church in the United States?