New Life for Old Church Buildings

Article excerpt

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 a youth-club basketball court in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Overseeing the gathering was not a preacher 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 would even 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 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 mainstream churches in the heartland and across the nation. Massive population shifts to the suburbs are leaving behind financially struggling churches with dwindling membership in the cities and inner-ring suburbs.

For example, over the next year and a half the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland will consider whether to close or merge more than 45 of its 231 parishes.

Church leaders from all denominations find themselves balancing the desire to have the buildings used for continued ministry with more practical considerations, such as receiving 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 have also been many instances of imaginative conversions, in which the original building is preserved as an architectural jewel in the neighborhood so the structure can serve the community as, for example, municipal offices, business space, an arts complex or housing.

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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 Daniel Drew, who oversees local church mergers for the United Methodist Church. …