Dioceses Struggle With Sale of Closed Churches

LAWRENCEVILLE, Pa. — Hops ferment in vats where wine was once consecrated on the altar of the former St. John the Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Pa. A confessional is a souvenir stand in a pub that advertises “heavenly cuisine.”

It has been years since bells pealed over worshippers in this old red-brick church. Mass was last celebrated beneath its high-vaulted ceiling in 1993 when the Diocese of Pittsburgh shuttered and sold St. John’s. A sign out front now advertises The Church Brew Works.

Church closings are a reality in older U.S. cities. Since 2002 the Archdiocese of Chicago closed 10. Catholics in New York and Detroit are bracing to hear how many of their churches will be shut down.

Boston closed 62 parishes since 2004 and is selling 40 properties. As a result of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the Archdiocese of New Orleans will almost certainly have to close churches, but how many?

The reasons for closings vary from natural disasters to man-made financial ones, from fewer priests to population shifts.

Even if an architectural gem is saved from the wrecking ball, probably no subsequent use of the building could compare with its former sacred one in the minds of the faithful. But if the former house of worship is treated with dignity and helps people in need, at least its new use doesn’t deepen the sorrow.

Father Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said of the church-turned-pub, “Clearly, we did not deem what happened to St. John’s appropriate.” He said that Pittsburgh learned from that experience.

U.S. diocesan officials surveyed said they first try to avoid selling a property by putting it to a new use, like turning an empty convent into a refugee ministry office.

“Once you sell the land, it’s almost impossible to get it back, especially in Manhattan,” said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York.

A closed church is deconsecrated, explained Kathleen Heck, a Boston archdiocesan lawyer. A decree is issued whereby the sacred property is “relegated to profane [secular] use.”

Jean Welter, director of research and planning for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said that if a church must be sold, officials would prefer that it be bought by another congregation.

Landmark Status

There is a chance that a historic building could be spared demolition if it meets landmark protection criteria. Preservation efforts could not save St. Leo the Great Church in Chicago; it was torn down in 2004 after being sold to Catholic Charities Housing Development Corp.

However, in place of the century-old church, St. Leo Residence for Veterans will open this fall with 142 rooms, Catholic Charities spokeswoman April Specht said.

Secular re-use is somewhat safeguarded by zoning and by a diocese’s consideration of buyers’ intentions, according to a Boston commercial realtor. “I have respect for the market,” Michael Foley said.

And, in Boston, the market demands housing.

Foley recently brokered the sale of Boston’s former Blessed Sacrament Parish campus. In the parish’s heyday, 4,000 people attended Sunday Masses. But attendance dropped over the years as demographics changed in the area.

Last year a neighborhood consortium with plans for housing bought the five-building, 3.5-acre parcel.

It’s hard to tell how often these scenarios are repeated nationwide. William Ryan, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said there is no definitive list of Church property for sale.

Even reported figures can be misleading, cautioned Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Dioceses reportedly closed 155 parishes last year, she said. But if two parishes merge into one new one, canon law dictates that they close first.

A developer for the Manhattan-based Follieri Group estimated there may be 200 Catholic Church properties on the market nationwide. The Follieri Group, formed in 2003, bills itself as “investors, real estate developers and consultants for the Catholic Church.”

Chairman Raphaello Follieri said his family has done construction for the Church in Italy for generations, even helping to build St. Pio’s Shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo. Andrea Sodano, a relative of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, is an engineering adviser to the group.

Its goal is to “ensure Catholic property is never converted to a use that is inconsistent with Church teachings.”

So far the group plans a charter school, housing, a day care center and a home for retired clergy on the property of two former Philadelphia parishes. Outside Chicago, it plans to develop 78 acres bought from the archdiocese.

The group has no firm plans for the property, said Annie Longon, a spokeswoman. She said that no church had ever stood on the acreage.

Opening Churches

Even as churches close in one city, others open elsewhere.

The Diocese of Tucson could use five more parishes, spokesman Fred Allison said.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles numbers more than 5 million Catholics.

“We have a ‘crisis’ of another kind,” spokesman Tod Tamberg said. “We haven’t closed any churches lately and are looking to build more.”

Occasionally there’s a happy ending for a dying parish.

That was the case for Chicago’s St. John Cantius Parish, whose beautiful Renaissance-Baroque church once stood in disrepair. Its pastor, Father C. Frank Phillips, shepherded the parish from about 70 members in 1988 to 2,000 now, and started a new community of priests — the Society of St. John Cantius.

The community’s goal is to help Catholics rediscover the sacred through devotions, art, music, catechesis, heritage and especially the Mass.

The beloved church is now “reminiscent of the great churches of Europe,” according to Father Dennis Kolinski of St. John Cantius. “We figured God would provide. You have to have confidence in God once in a while.”

Gail Besse is based

in Hull, Massachusetts.