New Life in Old Buildings: Catholics Repurpose Church Property for Today’s Needs
The Catholic Church has a surplus of properties built during a bygone era; innovative Catholic initiatives are finding creative ways to keep them on mission and preserve the Church’s physical footprint.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The buildings were “turnkey ready” for the Church’s mission: a magnificent church, renovated convent and retreat center that headquartered the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis for a century.
But with only 35 remaining members from what had once been a community of 600, the Hospital Sisters now needed a new owner to give their Springfield, Illinois, campus new life and purpose.
Thankfully, with the help of the Diocese of Springfield, the Hospital Sisters secured the future of the property by creating a trust that will pass the torch on to new religious occupants and a new expression of the Church’s mission. The sisters’ former headquarters will now serve as the home of a new community of Norbertine priests and brothers, as well as the Diocese of Springfield’s new Evermode Institute, a center of Catholic formation for teachers and catechists.
Regarding the transition of Church property, Bishop Thomas Paprocki credits the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis for their prudence and openness to “transcending” their own interests.
“They had a greater sense of the mission of the Church beyond just their community,” Bishop Paprocki told the Register.
A similar recognition is happening across the U.S., as an increasing number of parishes, dioceses, religious orders and other Church organizations find themselves with a surplus of properties no longer meeting the communal and apostolic needs for which they were originally built. But rather than selling them off, many Catholics are taking an innovative approach, finding new ways to put these old buildings at the service of the Gospel today.
Old Structures, New Mission
The housing and property needs of the Catholic Church in the U.S. have drastically changed from 50 years ago. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the U.S. Church had nearly 161,000 religious sisters in 1970, and it had 41,000 religious sisters in 2020. But the problem is the Church still has housing all over the U.S. built for 120,000 religious sisters who no longer occupy them.
The decline of Catholic priests and religious brothers tells a similar story: 59,000 priests and 11,600 religious brothers in 1970 is now 35,000 priests and 3,800 religious brothers in 2020.
But the Church’s property story does not have to be caught in a doom loop of selling and seeing its physical footprint shrink further. While the number of priests and religious continue to decline, Maddy Johnson, program manager for the Church Properties Initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate, told the Register that Church leaders have an opportunity to “be proactive and creative” with the spaces they already have in order to evangelize a society that is suffering from loneliness and isolation.
“There's a bottomless supply of underutilized Church property,” she said. “And so there’s boundless fields for innovative thinking.”
In fact, the Fitzgerald Institute will be joining the Global Institute of Church Management to co-host an upcoming conference in Rome on the topic, “Real Estate and the New Evangelization.” Billed as “the first event of its kind for managing Church assets,” the conference will take place April 28-30, exploring everything from “the theology of place” to case studies of “repurposing urban spaces to serve.”
Johnson says one practical way this kind of revitalization can and is taking place in the U.S. is by adapting convents that once housed religious sisters in a way that fulfills their original mission but in a new context: namely, as housing.
Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Paul the Apostle in Jersey City turned their attached convents over to the Magnificat Home, leasing them to the nonprofit apostolate that aims to provide safe housing, three meals a day, and a family-like atmosphere to women, most of whom are on social security or have low incomes. Magnificat Home, which serves 15 women, including those with mental-health challenges, and Mary’s Place, which houses 30 women, are the result.
“We’re pretty active Catholics,” Matt Laracy, executive director of the Magnificat Home, told the Register. “We knew the Church had a lot of convents that they don’t know what to do with.”
The apostolate emerged after conversations among Laracy and other dedicated Catholics on the topic of how for-profit corporations often operate dangerous places for their residents while squeezing them of income at the same time.
“The New York area real estate market is through the roof,” Laracy explained. For instance, according to Rent.com’s trends, a typical studio apartment in Jersey City’s costs $2,894 to rent per month. Magnificat Home and Mary’s Place’s residents, however, pay a much reduced monthly rent of $700.
Laracy said the zoning board had no problems with the convents being repurposed, as they saw the transformation as a “continuance” of the property’s original purpose.
Magnificat Home operates with 25% of its income from donations, and the other 75% comes from rent. Laracy said the parishes are happy with the arrangement, as the buildings are occupied and provide an income stream.
“I love this model,” Laracy said, noting that repurposing convents as housing for the sake of carrying on the Church’s mission is “organic.” He added that it also makes sure the Church continues to have property in its hands for its mission, instead of letting it go, as it changes again 20 to 30 years down the road.
“I would love to see [this approach] grow more somehow.”
New Life in Old Places
Johnson said retooling rectories and convents for places where young adults can have intentional Christian fellowship can have beneficial “spill-over effects” in the life of the parish.
Father Peter Mottola, a pastor in Rochester, New York, who oversees Peace of Christ parish, recognized such an opportunity after the merger of three parishes into the current parish-cluster model left a rectory unused.
Father Mottola told the Register he knew of several Catholic young men who were seeking common housing where they could live together and pray together. The priest saw an opportunity to “pay forward” the kind of formative experience he had as a young man during his 20s living in common with other dedicated Catholic young men, two of whom went on to become active Catholics in the local community and another who also became a priest for the diocese.
So Father Mottola worked with his business manager to rent out the rectory on a yearlong lease starting in July 2021.
“I wanted to pass on to others what I had received,” he said.
The benefits to the parish are more than simply financial or keeping the lights on at the edge of the church parking lot.
“They’ve been a positive presence on the campus,” said Father Mottola. He added that the men have served as lectors and servers and have helped with the parish’s livestreaming needs. They also hosted a reception for the parish’s Lenten mission.
“I hope that we’ll be able to continue it a second year,” the priest said.
Other opportunities include repurposing rectories and convents for laymen and women ministering in parishes and dioceses today. While the number of religious sisters and brothers is drastically down, CARA’s data shows that the Church today has approximately 40,000 laity in parish ministry roles, many of whom would benefit from church housing in addition to income.
In the Santa Barbara region of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, as previously reported by the Register, Deacon Chris Sandner transformed a convent into St. Elizabeth House for Catholic young adults to live in common in a safe and affordable environment where they can be strengthened in their faith as they serve the Church.
“It is just a matter of taking those buildings [and honoring] the original purpose, which is to support the apostolic work of the Church,” the deacon said.
Making It Work
Putting Catholic properties to work for the Church’s mission in a different way, however, requires intentional thinking and creativity. Otherwise, Notre Dame’s Maddy Johnson explained, parishes and other Church entities can end up making a haphazard “ad hoc” use of their buildings, or leave them empty, which can attract vandalism and crime.
Johnson said one thing pastors can do is make use of the talents of the laity in reenvisioning what can be done with these buildings.
“Often, whatever the idea is, it’s not going to come to fruition unless there’s engaged laypeople,” she said.
She said there is potential for creating new community spaces with parish property.
While the phenomenon is not widespread in the U.S., in France, there are examples of parishes turning empty properties into “co-work” space.
“This could be replicated in [other] Church-run property,” she said.
Other ways of disposing property for the Church’s mission include putting rural land toward conservation or retreat centers.
Johnson advised that Catholic entities should recognize that there are a range of options for what to do with a property, and selling should not be “the default” decision.
For instance, leasing agreements, even long-term leasing, can be a better solution. A well-structured “ground lease,” she explained, can help Catholic entities keep control over the future of a Church property and also generate a stream of income to serve the Church’s mission.
However, in certain cases, selling Church property can have beneficial impacts on the Church’s mission. Johnson said parishes and dioceses can determine that by exploring the needs of the community and finding “synergies” with the Church’s mission.
The Archdiocese of Seattle is planning to sell and redevelop four archdiocesan properties that will be converted into sustainable housing. The sale intends to both exemplify the Church’s care for creation but also expand the residential community around St. James Cathedral with the creation of 1,300 new homes.
“Redeveloping our real estate in a very efficient and sustainable way not only reflects our Catholic value of caring for our common home, but also provides us with resources to carry out our greater mission of bringing Christ to others,” Archbishop Paul Etienne said in a March 29 statement. “This significant project is an investment in the First Hill community and in our future, ensuring we can continue the good work of the Catholic Church.”
While the Catholic Church’s governance is hierarchical, there’s also the possibility for more localized decision-making. Under canon law, while dioceses have mechanisms for oversight, parishes are separate entities or “public juridic persons” with their own latitude for decision-making. In practice, Johnson explained, “the local parish priest is the authority in what happens at his parish.”
Johnson said dioceses can play an important subsidiary role in helping parishes or other Catholic entities within their boundaries to find resources, trusted experts in law and real estate, and even connections they need to help them repurpose property for the Church’s mission.
“That could be another area,” she said, “in which it would be reasonable for a parish to look to its diocese for the professional and technical expertise to help them navigate a project like that.”
In Springfield, Bishop Paprocki said the Evermode Institute (named for an evangelizing Norbertine saint) will help him to carry out the mandate from a 2017 diocesan synod to increase formation opportunities for schoolteachers and lay catechists whom he plans to institute, following the vision of Pope Francis.
The institute will be directed by the Norbertines and will focus on equipping educators to carry out the Catholic mission of evangelization, particularly in Catholic schools. The arrangement also spares the diocese from having to raise funds to purchase and build on a new property. It also provides a new place for the Norbertines — whose home abbey of St. Michael’s in Orange County, California, is already filled to capacity — to expand and grow.
Regarding the property, Bishop Paprocki described it as “turnkey ready.”
“We’re not talking about buying property, putting up buildings — it’s all there. It’s a question of now getting programs to replace what had been there.”
And it’s a question being asked by many dioceses and Catholic institutions across the country, as they seek to use the real estate they already have to advance the Gospel in new and creative ways.