By Kirk Petersen
When a church closes, often the diocese will sell the property. It can be a heartbreaking transition, but the opportunity to use the proceeds for the rest of the diocese is a bit of a silver lining.
But the Bishop of Pennsylvania doesn’t see it that way.
In more than six years of leading one of the largest dioceses in the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. Daniel G.P. Gutiérrez has not sold a single church. “There were 133 when I got here; now there’s 136,” he told TLC.
“I don’t think a church ever needs to be sold,” he declared. “I think you recast your nets to the other side and see how you can repurpose it.”
Gutiérrez said, “It’s easy to sell a church, put the money in the endowment, and then what happens? You lose a place to proclaim Jesus Christ. And to me, I just cannot stand that.”
That’s a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr., who closed 19 churches and sold 13 during his tenure, from 1997 to 2012.
When Gutiérrez was consecrated in 2016, he set out to restore the bonds of trust between churches and diocesan leadership. Diocesan bishops are required by canon to visit every church in the diocese at least once every three years. Gutiérrez set out on what he described as a pilgrimage, to visit all 133 churches within his first year.
“And in a lot of our smaller churches, the first thing they would ask me was, ‘Bishop, you’re not here to close us, right?’ Because there was no trust. That was always the solution — close and sell, and put [the proceeds] in the endowment,” he said. “I promised them, I will not give up on you if you do not give up on yourself.”
Some churches were already closed and sitting empty. “The first week, [Church of the] Crucifixion [in South Philadelphia] was handed to me, along with St. Stephen’s in Center City, and St. John’s here in Norristown, and basically they said we’re selling them. And I told them immediately, ‘No we’re not,’” Gutiérrez said.
All three have reopened — repurposed in different ways. The bishop calls them “resurrection churches.”
- Crucifixion, founded in 1847 as the second Black church in the diocese, is where worshipers included singer Marian Anderson and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. But the neighborhood had changed by 2021, when it was reopened as a magnet church for Hispanics.
- St. Stephen’s, founded in 1823, stopped holding services in 2016, and the few remaining parishioners dispersed to nearby Episcopal churches. When it reopened in 2017, it offered services only on weekdays, to avoid competing with neighboring parishes on Sunday mornings. The church is a block away from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. “It’s for people who are suffering while they’re visiting people in the hospital,” Gutiérrez said, as well as for hospital staff. The church recently added a Sunday service — in the afternoon.
- St. John’s in Norristown, a northwestern suburb, was founded in 1812. It closed in 2015. The diocese renovated the spacious rectory as office space, and in 2019 moved the diocesan headquarters there — after more than two centuries of being headquartered in Philadelphia. Norristown has a large Mexican American community (Gutiérrez is Mexican American), and St. John’s now offers services in English and Spanish. “There’s a lot of parking space,” Gutiérrez said.
Another resurrection is in the works — perhaps the most innovative of the bunch. St. Philip-in-the-Fields in Oreland, just outside the city limits, closed in 2016. “We’re going to create a place in partnership with the animal humane [society] to house animals in the old church hall,” Gutiérrez said. “These are animals that have been abused or abandoned, or their owners have passed away, and it’s a halfway house for animals before they get adopted. But we’re also inviting people who are unchurched to come and bring their animals and walk, and have community, and we hope that once they get there, and we’re doing something different, that the Holy Spirit will allow them to be part of this community.”
Jennifer Tucker, the diocese’s canon for communications, explained that initially, no animals will be housed overnight, for zoning reasons. The church will have a dog run behind the building, and provide a daily change of scenery for animals housed at a nearby shelter. It will be a lay-led congregation, opening in the spring of 2023, with worship services every day except Sunday.
This project is personal for Tucker, who grew up worshiping at St. Philip’s. She recently moved back to the neighborhood after many years in the city, along with her husband, daughter, and two dogs, to be a part of the lay leadership.
The diocese also plans to plant five “house churches” at the beginning of the year, in a model based on what the bishop called “the best strategy for building churches that’s ever been created,” as described in Acts of the Apostles. “We’re going to use some of that, where they share things, and they meet in houses and study Scripture. And we’re going to get a priest in there once a month to celebrate Eucharist. And hopefully they’ll invite families, and they’ll invite people who’ve been shut in, and then from there, we will start growing.”
The Rev. Yesenia Alejandro, vicar at Crucifixion, is herself an innovation, as she has never attended seminary. She grew up Roman Catholic in Puerto Rico, was a nondenominational pastor in Philadelphia for a decade, and ran a non-profit organization.
Gutiérrez designed a rigorous three-year curriculum for her. “She had to meet all the requirements of the Commission on Ministry, for the Episcopal Church, and pass the GOEs, and she did,” he said, referring to the General Ordination Exam.
“They asked me if I’d be willing to go to the Church of the Crucifixion as a Hispanic missioner for South Philly. And of course, I said yes! I’m excited, I want to start something,” Alejandro said.
She quickly found that “the Latino community of South Philadelphia did not know what an Episcopal Church was,” she said. “We’ve had to go out to the community and talk about who we are as a church, and what is the Episcopal Church, what is it that we offer?” After five months as a missioner, she was named vicar of Crucifixion in 2021.
The church distributes free groceries on Tuesdays and Fridays, and hosts yoga classes and AA meetings. It even has a softball team. “We do a lot of the services out in the baseball fields, we go out to the park,” she said. Average Sunday attendance is about 45 — a smidgen below the median weekly attendance for Episcopal churches nationwide.
Crucifixion was relaunched to serve the Latino community, but also ministers to Asian Americans, African Americans, and whites. The church holds a bilingual service — Alejandro preaches in both English and Spanish, and lessons alternate between the languages.
She can’t translate for Asian Americans, but “they get very excited with the music. When the music starts, everybody’s dancing!”
Alejandro and a strong cadre of volunteers do all this without an office staff, although she has substantial administrative support from the diocese. “She doesn’t have to do budgeting. She doesn’t have to do church reports. We’re doing that internally,” Gutiérrez said. “A lot of what churches consider you need staff for, we’re doing that for her, so she can go out and do ministry.”
The diocese plans to create a 501(c)3 company “that will take up all those administrative duties for our small churches, all that stuff that takes up so much time administratively, and detracts from going out and preaching the good news,” he said.
Although the diocese has not sold any churches during Gutiérrez’s tenure, it has sold some ancillary buildings, including at Crucifixion. The new ministry there has been funded in part by the sale of the adjacent parish hall, which was being used by a theater company. Renovations proceed at the church to provide some of the facilities that were housed in the parish hall, including a kitchen and more restrooms. “Maybe it’s not as large as it originally was, but we didn’t lose the church, we didn’t sell the church,” the bishop said.
Gutiérrez is very intentional about doing things differently. “I don’t want to be the best at everything, I want to be the first to do things that no one else is doing,” he said.
His approach will not directly translate to some other dioceses. “We’re a wealthy diocese, we have a large endowment,” he said. Pennsylvania ranked 11th among 112 dioceses for 2020, with more than 36,000 baptized members. And however traumatic the process may have been, the sale and closure of many churches under Bishop Bennison gave Gutiérrez more flexibility to keep the remaining churches and try new things.
The point is to try something new.
“I tell my staff: ‘Fail. Fail often, and fail daringly. Because if we’re not failing, we’re not trying,’” Gutiérrez said. “If you can, fail cheap, which is always good, but let’s fail. We have to show that we have a strong belief and we’re willing to take chances in the name of Jesus.”