Building a New Future for Church Buildings

New York’s current parish restructurings highlight the issue of how to use surplus Church properties constructively.

Children's books and stuffed animals are available in the library of the Holy Family Home for Women and Children, located in a renovated former parochial school in Providence, R.I.
Children's books and stuffed animals are available in the library of the Holy Family Home for Women and Children, located in a renovated former parochial school in Providence, R.I. (photo:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — With plans to close 33 churches and merge 112 parishes, the Archdiocese of New York has embarked on a yearlong effort to decide which buildings will remain open and which ones will close.

And part of the process, as in many other dioceses that also have been forced to deal with the same issue, will be the question of how to make use of properties the local Church no longer requires for their original purpose.

In New York, parishes blessed with decades, if not more than a century, of faithful support from generations of Catholics will decide along with an archdiocesan-planning group what happens next to the closed churches, convents, rectories and schools, said Joseph Zwilling, communications director for the archdiocese.

“We are a long way from looking at any property and what will happen to it at any point,” Zwilling told the Register. “We will work with the parishes through our real estate and finance departments to discuss with them these kinds of issues. The parishioners will be meeting to discuss these issues.”

Once a diocese decides to close schools or churches, where faith was once formed, taught and shared, the future of such buildings generally turns on a number of issues and concerns, including the mission and reputation of possible buyers. Indeed, when Church institutions go on the market, not only is the golden rule of real estate — location, location, location — in play, but so is the new purpose of an old building that has made a place for itself in the community at large, said James Elcock, executive vice president and managing partner of Colliers International Boston office, a leading global, commercial real-estate company.

“Churches are mostly located in the center of communities, making the property valuable and attractive. Many of the buildings are architecturally distinctive, with some historical value,” Elcock told the newspaper. “The church communities are always concerned that an appropriate use will be made of the property in a sale, and they are as likely to sell it to another church community or social-service organization, provided the building will be treated respectfully, for less than they would if they sold it to a commercial enterprise.”


The National Picture

What to do with closed churches and other parish properties is confronting an increasing number of dioceses across the country, said A. Robert Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, a 25-year-old, Philadelphia-based nonprofit corporation that helps parishes either stay open by finding means to increase revenue or find new tenants from the arts community or area food groups.

“These places have great value not only to the parish, but to the community,” said Jaeger, whose nonprofit also has offices in Chicago and Fort Worth, Texas, and has worked with churches of several denominations in every state.

The Catholic Church in America has seen 11% of its parishes close since 1988, from 19,705, the peak since 1944, to 17,483 in 2014, according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a nonprofit research center at Georgetown University. Although new parishes are opening in Western and Southwestern states — fueled, in part, by Latino immigration and relocations from other states — their number is dwarfed by closings, CARA reports. In 2013, 61 new parishes opened in the United States, but 190 parishes closed.

Parishes in rural and urban communities in the Northeast and the Midwest rust belt are particularly affected by declining attendance that resulted from families moving to the suburbs and the general decline in church attendance, Jaeger said.

“The rural plains of the Midwest are as hard hit by church closings as are the major cities of Detroit and Chicago,” Jaeger said. “The question is: What can be done to repurpose these buildings? Are these entire buildings that are vacant? Or are there spaces there that can be used for other purposes?”


New York’s Plan

The decision to close churches and their parish schools, rectories and convents was reached in New York after a four-year effort by an archdiocesan-planning group called Making All Things New. The ground-up endeavor involved 368 parishes and 75 parish clusters (groups of about four-seven neighboring parishes), a 40-person advisory committee comprised of clergy, religious men and women and Catholics from across the archdiocese.

In November, Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced that 112 parishes will be merged into 55 by Aug. 1, 2015. Forty-eight parishes will merge to form 24 new parishes, with Masses and sacraments celebrated at both churches.

The other 64 parishes will merge with a nearby parish to create 31 new parishes. Although that new parish will have two churches initially, Masses and sacraments will only be celebrated on a regular basis at one church as of Aug. 1. What happens to the other 33 churches and parish buildings will be determined by the parishes, working with the archdiocesan-planning committee.

The determination about use and possible sale or conversion of the vacant buildings will be based on looking for new ways to meet  “the spiritual, education, charitable and human needs of the people of God of this archdiocese,” Cardinal Dolan said. The archdiocese will continue to discuss ways to increase the amount of affordable housing with city of New York officials and will place some of the closed churches and buildings on the table as possible locations for housing, he added.

The cardinal said there will be a focus on seeking to use the vacant properties to serve ”people with special needs ... an ever-increasing ministry, and the archdiocese will look into new and creative ways to accomplish this as well.”


Inspired by Pope Francis

Outreach to the poor has been given new prominence by Pope Francis, who remarked early on in his pontificate that he wants a Church that will “be poor among the poor.”

Father Edward Cardente is the pastor for three parishes in North Providence and Providence, R.I., that remain open and now assist diverse communities, focusing their ministries on serving the poor and homeless. St. Anthony Church and Our Lady of the Presentation Church, both of North Providence, provide financial and material support to the inner-city third parish, St. Edward Church in Providence. The three churches operate a food pantry and a health-service program in St. Edward’s former parish hall.

After pondering the Pope’s statements and witness, Father Cardente and parishioners from the three churches he serves decided to convert St. Edward’s former parochial school into a shelter for homeless women and their children called The Holy Family Home.

“The Holy Family Home is a Catholic faith response to the social ill of homelessness,” Cardente said. “We are being responsive to Pope Francis’ preaching and his statements. He has influenced a lot of people to take another look at Catholicism.”

How Church properties are utilized offers an opportunity to witness to the Catholic faith, Father Cardente asserted.

“The building will still have a Catholic purpose; families of all denominations will be welcomed there,” he said. “One of the consequences of this effort is to challenge other parishes with vacant property to consider doing the same thing.”

Jaeger agreed that Father Cardente and his parishioners have accomplished the mission of using a vacant property.

“Parishes need to articulate that larger public value of their buildings,” Jaeger said.


South Philly and New Hampshire

In South Philadelphia, Partners for Sacred Places worked with Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church when it closed the parish school. The school remained an integral part of the community when it was converted to offices and rehearsal rooms for a kid’s theater, which became an outreach to the neighborhood that engaged the local Mummers Clubs, the famed costumed string band that famously marches in New Year’s Day parades across the country.

“The building was fully empty,” Jaeger said. “They were not keen on turning it into a charter school, and they didn’t want to lose use of the building. Now, it is a neighborhood center supported by the community.”

An abandoned high school in New Hampshire experienced a different fate when it faced closing 40 years ago.

About one hour from the U.S.-Canadian border, in the shadow of Mount Washington, Notre Dame High School in Berlin, N.H., sits atop a hill that dominates the small city where the major mill closed, and the population has dribbled away 16,000 to 11,000. The high school became an unsightly, boarded-up landmark on a piece of land that has breathtaking views of Mount Washington.

In 2003, a group of 55 alumni of the school who were upset at the building’s decline cleaned it out, boarded it up and made a plan, said Lorraine Leclerc, from the Class of 1965 and a prime mover in the effort.

“We told the city: 'If we don’t get it done, we will knock it down,'” she said.

In December, Senior Living at Notre Dame was officially opened, offering 33 affordable apartments.

“It used to be a place where a lot of good things happened,” Leclerc said. “And it will be again. This great building that educated generations will now be a home to an older generation.”

Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Warwick, Rhode Island.