Please Don't Turn My Church into a Minimart! ; When Churches Must Sell Their Buildings, Congregants Often Have Strong Feelings about Appropriate Reuse

Article excerpt

David Smith is gearing up for some tough choices over the next couple of years - about 70 in all. That's because as chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, Mr. Smith will soon oversee the largest sell-off of church real estate in American history, as the downsizing diocese puts as many as 70 local parish buildings on the block. Because these properties have become much more than bricks and mortar to longtime members, assessing an offer's reasonableness marks only the start of the seller's dilemmas.

"Value in our case is not only money. It's also reuse," Mr. Smith says. "We're not going to sell necessarily to the highest bidder."

As Boston Catholics weigh what's to come in the afterlife of their holy buildings, they face a subtle struggle that's hardly unique to their situation.

Those who have owned anything from a family homestead to a humble Protestant meetinghouse can probably relate to the notion that certain buildings acquire a type of sacredness with time - and that means certain reuses after a sale would rise to the level of desecration.

When time comes to sell, owners of symbolic real estate confront a classic tradeoff. To impose restrictions would be to cut into profits that could fund the next meaningful enterprise.

But to sell without restrictions, or without regard for a buyer's intentions, one would run the risk of transforming a home or church building into something that mocks or erases all that the beloved site once represented.

So sensitive is the territory that even the most respectable of reuses can stir up hard feelings.

For instance, some years ago in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a Baptist congregation outgrew its building and sold it to buy a new one. But those who remember worshiping inside still haven't accepted that someone turned their church into a private home, according to Lindsay Jones, a religious architecture scholar at Ohio State University.

"People stop him and tell him how they got married in his living room," says Mr. Jones. "They find it irksome. It's intrinsically tied to its original function, so [to them] he's exploiting it in a way."

To head off bitter feelings, and perhaps even find a well- appreciated reuse, some sellers are investigating the intentions of prospective buyers and establishing social criteria to guide their decisionmaking. In the parlance of Roman Catholic canon law, the former church building returns to a use that is "profane but not sordid."

And in sorting out that distinction, in Catholicism and elsewhere, sellers seem to struggle to express something about who they are at the core.

As an active Methodist layman for 60 years, Charlie Johnson of Port Charlotte, Fla., has taken part in a number of church building sales. Yet even when the people are moving on to something bigger and better, he always urges the congregation to be careful about the buyer. …