Historic Churches: Six Cases

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By Kirk Petersen

As attendance dwindles in many historic Episcopal congregations, so does pledge income, and it becomes harder and harder to maintain beautiful old buildings with slate roofs and soaring arches in the nave. Some churches have closed, and more will need to. There’s a special reluctance to close truly historic buildings, but saving them often requires resources far beyond what a small remaining congregation can provide.

Historic churches in a budget crunch have a number of options:

  • They can secure funding from the diocese, the broader community, or historic-preservation groups.
  • They can borrow, with the building as collateral.
  • They can sell off assets, if they have them to sell.
  • They can repurpose part of their church property for rental, thereby preserving a historic structure and maintaining a downsized congregation.
  • They can close their doors, give the keys to the diocese, and hope that some other religious organization will acquire the property and continue using it for worship.

Historic church buildings tend to give value to the community beyond the members of the congregation. Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit agency that provides consulting and grants to churches, has identified an “economic halo effect” of historic church buildings. A study published by Partners found that “the average historic sacred place in an urban environment generates over $1.7 million annually in economic impact.” The report also found that 87 percent of the beneficiaries of community programs and events housed in the churches are not members of the congregations.

In addition to Partners, the Episcopal Church Building Fund also provides consulting for parishes and dioceses, as well as providing conventional loans. ECBF is itself historic, founded in 1880 at a time of rapid Episcopal expansion.

TLC has gathered in these pages the stories of half a dozen historic Episcopal churches throughout the country, illustrating the different paths they can choose.

St. Martin’s, Harlem
Rising from the Ashes, Twice

St. Martin’s is a huge landmark in Harlem, New York, with seating for 3,300. It was built with granite in the Byzantine Revival style in 1886 as Holy Trinity, but that congregation opted to move out when the building was nearly destroyed by fire in 1925. Only the walls remained standing.

The building was restored by a new congregation, St. Martin’s, only to be ravaged by fire again in 1939. Rebuilt once more under the leadership of the Rev. John H. Johnson, the church flourished for decades with a predominantly Caribbean congregation. But weekly attendance has fallen to about 100, said Valerie Daly, senior warden.

The structure is best known in the neighborhood for the 42-bell carillon installed in the 1940s. The bells have been silent for several years because the bell tower is unsafe. “I’m sure it will involve taking some of the tower apart, and then putting it back together again” after numbering all the stones, said Barry Donaldson, the architect working with the parish and the Diocese of New York. Many of the bells will have to be removed temporarily. One of them weighs 2,500 pounds.

The diocese is providing an interest-free bridge loan to finance the $2.8 million bell tower project, said the Rev. Canon Blake Rider, canon to the ordinary, with the expectation of being repaid through the sale of one or more townhouses that the church owns in the area.

The tower is just the beginning of St. Martin’s needs. “The entire roof needs to be redone,” Donaldson said, and the original slate and copper roof has been replaced across decades with residential-grade asphalt and tar. Once the roof is stable, the two-foot-thick walls will need to dry out for many months before extensive interior work can be done. Overall, the project may go on for a decade, and Rider said it will require “several more millions of dollars of work.”

When asked if the building is worth the investment, Rider said: “We spent a long time looking at that.” The deciding factors were the rich history of the church and the existence of assets that can cover much of the cost. “We decided we could not let this parish fail,” he said. He added that Harlem is gentrifying, which is bringing more money into the neighborhood.

The church is historically important in the community because of extensive civil rights activism dating back to the 1930s, when the church established a federal credit union to make it possible for black members to acquire mortgages. In the 1940s, the church was involved in the effort to integrate Major League Baseball, according to a history of the church by the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association.

St. Paul’s, Syracuse
Embracing the Neighborhood

The cornerstone for St. Paul’s in Syracuse was laid in 1884, but the congregation dates to 1827, when it became the third church in the young village. The current church was built in Gothic Revival style, at a time when railroads and the Erie Canal had turned Syracuse into a booming transportation and manufacturing hub.

St. Paul’s is a large place: the church seats about 500, and there is a spacious three-story parish house. “We have a lot more space than we need,” said Rebecca Livengood, chair of the task force for renovating the buildings.

As the downtown gentrifies again, there’s an increased demand for apartments for young professionals, and the church wants to build nine apartments on the second and third floors of the parish house. That will require installing an elevator and making other handicap accessibility changes, and like many churches St. Paul’s needs money for roof repair and deferred maintenance.

Average Sunday attendance is about 130, not including a Dinka-language service for South Sudanese refugees. That is not a small congregation, but it is too small for its real estate, and the planned renovations are estimated at $3.2 million.

The parish plans a capital campaign in the fall and is working with both the Episcopal Church Building Fund and Partners for Sacred Places. Livengood is a thankful for the Sacred Places consulting service, which urged St. Paul’s to draw the downtown community into its planning. The State of New York also has funds for historic preservation and tax incentives that St. Paul’s hopes will help.

St. Matthew’s & St. Joseph’s, Detroit
Struggling Despite its Rich History

St. Matthew’s & St. Joseph’s occupies a Gothic structure built in 1926, when the booming new auto industry had turned Detroit into “the Silicon Valley of its day,” says the Rev. Kenneth Near, priest-in-charge.

Now Detroit is arguably America’s most distressed city, and the North End church is near ground zero of the 1967 riots that left 43 dead. The roof leaks because of damage from thieves who tried to steal the copper gutters and flashings, says lifelong parishioner Alethea Belfon. The parking lot is a mess, and the kitchen needs upgrading to support the church’s ministry providing hot meals to the poor and homeless.

“Matty-Joe’s” has room for about 300 in the pews, but only 40 to 50 sit there on an average Sunday.

The Woodward Avenue building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, originally housed just St. Joseph’s. After falling on hard times in the years after the riots, St. Matthew’s merged and moved in with St. Joseph’s in 1971. St. Matthew’s was founded in 1846, making it one of the oldest traditionally black parishes in the Episcopal Church. Early parishioners helped slaves escape across the Detroit River into Canada.

The church was a runner-up last year in competition for funding from the Partners for Sacred Places, having applied for $250,000 in matching funds. The parish was encouraged to apply again with a more comprehensive project plan, Belfon said. Parishioners are working on it, but do not really have money for professional fees.

St. Andrew’s, Dayton
Saying Goodbye

St. Andrew’s in Dayton, Ohio, traces its roots to 1865. Its white A-frame church building opened in 1923, and as the city grew, so did the parish, leading to an expansion in the 1950s. But membership and donations have been dropping for many years, with about 25 worshipers on an average Sunday in 2016, in a church that will seat more than 150.

The church has made the difficult decision to close its doors, said Sally O’Brien, vice president of the Episcopal Church Building Fund, which worked with the Diocese of Southern Ohio to assess the viability of St. Andrew’s and other churches. The final service is scheduled for April 8.

Amanda Romero, a member of the task force pursuing options for the building, said the diocese plans to keep the building maintained through 2018 so a food pantry and used-clothing shop within it can continue to operate. The parish has spent about $15,000 on repairing water damage upstairs, and the building needs a new roof.

O’Brien praised the parishioners for the way they are handling the loss: “They did not wait until it was too late. They are closing as a parish while the building is still in good shape, and there is still a bank account, and turning it over to the diocese.”

The diocese will confer with local churches, nonprofit agencies, and civic leaders to determine the best future use for the property.

Epiphany, Los Angeles
Saving its Structure

Church of the Epiphany, founded in 1886, is the oldest Episcopal Church still in use in the Diocese of Los Angeles. The church building erected that year is still in use as a parish hall. The current church was built in 1913 with a West Coast flair, in a mix of Gothic Revival, Mission Revival, and Romanesque Revival styles.

The church attracts about 70 worshipers on an average Sunday. It is historically a working-class Latino church, and the larger of two services is in Spanish. There is a smaller English-language service that includes some professionals, “but nobody with a lot of money, I can tell you that,” said the Rev. Thomas Carey, Epiphany’s bilingual priest.

Epiphany has already been through one major round of repairs, which saved the parish hall from collapsing, added a commercial kitchen, and fixed some stained-glass windows. But the roof needs repair, there’s a water problem in the basement, and leaders want to renovate the large basement and the offices above it. All this will require updating the 1913 electrical equipment.

Carey said Epiphany is gathering estimates, but it will all cost “a lot.” The parish received a grant for up to $250,000 from Partners for Sacred Places, but it requires a two-to-one match, so Epiphany needs to raise $500,000. Those funds can only be used for structural repairs, but the organ needs $30,000 worth of work. Epiphany has received “major help” from the diocese, Carey said, and are preparing for a capital campaign.

Trinity & St. Peter’s, San Francisco
Sustaining an Arts Community

Trinity & St. Peter’s in San Francisco is the oldest Episcopal church west of the Mississippi. It was founded as Trinity Episcopal during the Gold Rush in 1849 and inhabits a fortress-like Norman Gothic structure opened in 1894. The sanctuary of soaring arches has been closed since 2009 because of earthquake concerns, even though the building survived massive earthquakes in 1906 and 1989.

“For some reason the insurance company has only banned us from the main sanctuary,” which has room for 450 people, said the Rev. Patricia Cunningham, priest-in-charge. The congregation, which numbers 60 people on an average Sunday, meets in a more intimate adjoining parish hall “that’s sort of the right size for us,” she said.

But they want to reopen the main church as a venue for concerts and weddings and are moving toward turning it into a center for the arts. Three performing groups are headquartered in the massive building, and they are opening a small art gallery.

The seismic retrofit will cost $4 million. The parish already has $1 million in the bank, and Cunningham said it has borrowing power based on an expected ability to generate $400,000 in annual rentals. It has received a $250,000 matching grant from Partners for Sacred Places, but the future is not entirely clear. In a July 2017 report, Sacred Places said the congregation is not ready for a major capital campaign, and advised it to work to build membership and increase partnerships with the arts community.


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