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
"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
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
"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
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
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