Second Acts
Closed Churches Discover New Roles as Youth Clubs, Condos and City Offices

By David Briggs
Religion News Service
Saturday, August 25, 2007

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Dozens of children chattered with excitement in a space where the faithful of the former Heights United Presbyterian Church once raised their voices in worship. The pews were gone, and the sanctuary had become the Heights Youth Club basketball court.

Overseeing the gathering was not a preacher elevated above the congregation, but a former basketball player surrounded by kids eager to have a place to play on a warm summer day.

What has not been lost in the transition is a sense of purpose and energy -- some even would say mission -- in this old brick building.

"I can't think of a better way if the church could not make it there than to develop a program that would make young people's lives better," said the Rev. Louise Westfall, pastor of nearby Fairmount Presbyterian Church. "That seems to me to be very sacred work."

If only all closed churches could do so well in their next lives.

The issue of what to do with former sanctuaries is a growing concern for mainline churches across the nation. Massive population shifts to the suburbs are leaving behind dwindling, financially struggling churches in the cities and inner-ring suburbs.

Church leaders from all denominations find themselves balancing the desire to have someone use the buildings for continued ministry with more practical considerations, such as getting a high sale price.

In a few cases, the buildings are in such disrepair that they must be razed. In most cases, the buildings will be sold or transferred to another church.

But there also have been many instances of imaginative conversions, where the original building is preserved as an architectural jewel in the neighborhood, and the structure can serve the community in such ways as municipal offices, businesses, arts complexes or housing.

Continuing the legacy of a building that for decades served as a spiritual beacon is important, particularly for people grieving the loss of their church, religious leaders say.

Members of a closed church consider it "sacred space given by their ancestors, and they'd like to see it continue as sacred space," said the Rev. Daniel Drew, who oversees local church mergers for the United Methodist Church.

In the Catholic church, as in other mainline churches, the first preference is that a closed building continue to serve a religious purpose, said the Rev. Ralph Wiatrowski, pastor of St. Barnabas Catholic Church in Northfield, Ohio, and former Cleveland diocesan chancellor.

No Episcopal church will end up as an adult bookstore, said the Rev. Patricia L. Hanen, assistant to the bishop for congregational development in the diocese of Ohio.

"We're very particular about" selling closed churches, Hanen said. The church wants the building to be "some kind of an asset to another religious group or the community at large," she said.

In the case of the Heights Youth Club, Fairmount Presbyterian Church raised $100,000, matching a $100,000 challenge grant, to help create a nonprofit corporation to buy the former Heights United Presbyterian Church. The club, which opened in January, offers summer and after-school activities promoting education, recreation and the arts.

Although the youth club is a secular program operated by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland, it fits with church goals of nurturing young people, the Rev. Westfall said.

Among others, artists have found inspiration in closed churches.

St. Josaphat Catholic Church in Cleveland, which closed in 1998, is now Josaphat Arts Hall.

Glass Artist Kathleen Manhattan said she can sense the energy from parish meals, wedding receptions and ceremonies held in the basement of the former church, where she has her Streets of Manhattan Studio.

"It's still a spiritual place, because art is spiritual," Manhattan said. "And it's alive. It's alive with people. It's alive with ideas."

Even selling to a developer does not mean the building will be torn down or dramatically altered.

When developer Josh Simon purchased First English Lutheran Church after it closed in 2002, he preserved much of the aesthetics, including classic archways, stained-glass windows and heavy wooden beams, when he converted the building to townhouses.

Debbie Harris, who owns the unit where the altar once stood, kept the more than 15-foot-tall stained-glass window of Jesus surrounded by sheep.

"When you wake up in the morning, Jesus is looking down on you," she said. "It's a very peaceful feeling."

David Briggs writes for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

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