Why Church Construction Costs More For Catholics Than Protestants

VANCOUVER, Wash. — When the Assemblies of God's Glad Tidings Church completed its new 52,000-square-foot church here in 1998, the congregation paid slightly less than $5 million.

Less than a mile away, when it is finally completed, the parishioners of Holy Redeemer Parish in suburban Vancouver, Wash., will have spent more than $16 million for their 70,000-square-foot new church.

Across the river in suburban Portland, Ore., the 60,000-square-foot nondenominational Protestant Church of the Good Shepherd is priced at $8-10 million — under $170 per square foot. Across town, the 70,000-square-foot Sunset Presbyterian Church, with a rotating stage, padded pews and an elaborate audiovisual system, is budgeted at $11-12 million — $170 per square foot.

The numbers are starkly revealing.

But a few miles to the north, the Catholic Church of St. John the Evangelist is preparing to replace its aging and small church building with a larger one capable of seating the 1,200-family parish and expanding its parish hall. The cost for this project, encompassing less than 19,000 feet, is $4.3 million, or about $239 per square foot.

In practically every case, when church construction costs are examined, the Catholic church will cost more — usually 50% more per square foot — than the comparable Protestant church.

“It's very frustrating,” said Father Joseph Mitchell, pastor of Holy Redeemer Parish. “You want to build a nice church, something with character that will be an enduring symbol, but then you're talking more money. It's overwhelming.”

Why does it cost so much to build a Catholic church?

Conflicting responsibility, procedural errors, poor cost containment and more than a little monumentalism by parishioners, pastors and architects combine to escalate costs, often beyond the parish's ability to pay.

Meanwhile, the number of inadequately housed parishes continues to increase, as congregations celebrate Mass in school gymnasiums and auditoriums, parish halls, aged and overcrowded church buildings or, in a few cases, suburban strip malls. The Archdiocese of Portland in 1962 had a population of approximately 500,000, with 115 parishes. In 2002, those numbers jumped to 1.8 million Catholics with 125 parishes.

Overlapping responsibility for master plans, design, budgeting and fund-raising goals are where difficulties begin. Parish committees interact with archdiocese design and finance committees, who interact with architects and a variety of fund-raising, design and special-purpose consultants.

“Personally, I find that the levels, the layers [of project administration] make for a cumbersome process, and it indirectly affects costs,” said architect Kenneth Paulson. “Meeting codes, parish building committees and the committees at the archdiocese level can be more complex than can be anticipated.”

Paulson described ongoing negotiations with the Archdiocese of Seattle over the placement of the tabernacle at the new St. John the Evangelist Church.

“The parish has a desire that the tabernacle be placed in a prominent location, but the archdiocese doesn't want it in competition with the altar,” he said. “These are subjective elements, and a matter of a few feet can make a major difference, since if you change one thing, you need to change six other things.”

This complexity contributes to the procedural errors. These can make a major difference in the expense of the project, said Stephen Schommer, president of Schommer & Sons Construction, a major builder of churches in the Archdiocese of Portland.

“Rather than waiting until the end, the builder should be part of the design process from the beginning,” he said.

Builders traditionally perform ongoing cost estimates, Schommer said.

“Without these estimates, there is tendency for costs to creep,” he said. “By the time it gets to the construction phase, the design is done and you're over budget.”

Uncontained Costs

Cost containment also fails due to the sequence of events, from conception to completion. Financial analysis of the parish and its fund-raising capabilities follows, rather than precedes, design of the project master plan. This, Schommer noted, leads to overdesign, which leads to massive cost overruns and compromises that leave parishes celebrating Mass in halls and gymnasiums for decades.

“The real issue is not the structure but the furnishings and materials used,” said Joe Gehlen, president of Kramer, Gehlen & Associates, a structural engineering firm, which has handled several Protestant and Catholic church projects in the Pacific Northwest. Gehlen said commercial construction, whether it involves a church or an office building, is fairly standard at approximately $70 per square foot for wood frame and $110 per square foot for steel and concrete, including basic plumbing, wiring, fixtures and finishes.

Long spans, high and unsupported exterior walls, and extensive use of glass can inflate construction costs, as can exotic wood and stone work, elaborate audiovisual systems, and custom artwork and installations.

“In standard commercial construction, [architectural design features] account for 25% of the build-ing's cost,” Gehlen said. “In churches, it tends to be higher.”

Ed Foster, director of Property and Construction Services for the Archdiocese of Seattle, agreed, but he cautioned that direct cost-per-square-foot comparisons are risky.

“You have to compare site preparation, special circumstances and utility costs, too,” he said.

Foster also said comparing the cost of Catholic and Protestant church construction is meaningless. “We're not talking the same language,” he said.

Foster said he would expect the cost of a parish church to be higher since there is more concern about permanence.

This is where monumentalism enters the construction equation. The Catholic church, whether a cathedral or a parish church, is an icon.

“If you want to compare with our Protestant brethren, probably Catholic churches are, on average, more expensive,” said architect Duncan Stroik, a member of the faculty at University of Notre Dame and a leading expert on Catholic architecture. “They should be, since we believe they are sacramental architecture and houses of God. Buildings are catechism in bricks, mortar and glass.”

“If you want to make a contemporary comparison which is apt,” he said, “we could compare the cost of parish churches to other public buildings, such as museums, concert halls, stadiums, courthouses, some university buildings and public libraries in big cities.”

The recently completed $430 million Seahawks Stadium and the $517 million Safeco Field in Seattle cost between $6,000 and $10,000 per seat. By comparison, St. John the Evangelist comes in at $4,700 per seat, while Holy Redeemer Church will cost approximately $8,000 per seat, not including the parish hall or school building.

Meanwhile, the 250,000-square-foot Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, built in 1993 at a cost of $89 million, was $356 per square foot. American Institute of Architects gold medal-winning architect Frank Gehry's other recent project, the 145,000-square-foot Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, was completed this spring for $61.7 million, or $426 per square foot.

Both projects cost more per square foot than the $228-$239 per square foot price of Catholic churches planned for the Portland area.

Although this is not necessarily a practical comparison, since height and square footage inflate construction costs as structural burdens increase and stadiums and museum spread the cost over several hundred thousand — rather than several hundred — families, Stroik said the real problem is Catholic parishioners.

“We have to ask why it is that Catholics are the wealthiest they have ever been and yet tithing has gone down, as a percentage, which leads one to ask why we do not ask people to sacrifice. Whether it is the Widows’ Mite or the middle-class family's SUV, where your treasure is, so is your heart.”

Philip S. Moore writes from Portland, Oregon.