By the Archbishop’s decree a large number of churches in the Archdiocese of New York were shuttered and “merged” with other surviving churches as of August 1, leaving many worshipers utterly disconsolate. Even appeals consistent with the content of the applicable decree came to naught while petitions were answered with a customized decree, directed exclusively to said petitioners: a careful lawyerly response, instead of a caring pastoral concern.
Church shutdowns—both Catholic and non-Catholic—are not new in New York or elsewhere. It was just over 40 years ago that major church closures and selloffs began with the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue closing its doors as a place of worship. The building was sold and developed into a nightclub named Limelight. This was the place to be and be seen for several years. The novelty eventually wore off as with all things fashionable, but the former church found other stakeholders and today is a trendy clothing and jewelry marketplace.
On entering the century-and-a-half-year old building a visitor is greeted with blaring rock music from loudspeakers placed beneath the erstwhile choir loft where voices once were raised in praise of the Lord. In the recess space of the pointed arch stood a dummy wearing a skimpy red dress with a plunging neckline. The interior of the three-story building is still lined by religious and artistic treasures. Climbing stairs to what was once the choir loft one sees a beautiful full figure stained glass window of St. Cecelia, every detail delicately highlighted by unknown artists of a bygone era. Wandering around the meticulously arranged sports clothing one can come close to other windows, including an allegorical one featuring faith and hope. Another window showed a blissful angel with the overhead caption “Preach the gospel.” (Evidently the last vicar must have failed to do so effectively.)
The large belfry which for over a century called the faithful to services has been transformed into a gymnastics parlor. On the other side of the church, the parsonage has been converted into “Grimaldi’s Pizzeria.” Architectural buffs may still rejoice that the magnificent stone church remains standing for passersby to admire. Even the stained glass windows remain intact. Many Christians, however, likely walk by with a heavy heart, perhaps invoking the Lord’s mercy.
New York City is not alone when it comes to church closures or of other religious institutions such as monasteries and convents. Some churches transit from deconsecration to desecration as properties are closed and “converted” to other uses including, inter alia, residential complexes, art galleries, sports facilities, concert domains, conference centers, clothing stores and whatever else creative entrepreneurs and diligent architects can imagine.
A sampling of newspaper real estate supplements over the past few years presented some interesting transformations. An recent item in the New York Times read as follows: “On the market: a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath complex in a converted church, listed at $1.995 million.” The magnificent edifice pictured was located in Brooklyn, NY.
An article in the Financial Times a few years back entitled “Church Conversions” stated the following: “As many as 18,000 former places of worship in the UK are now used for other purposes, including about 2,500 that are listed. In London alone around 500 churches have been converted into flats and houses over the last five years.” Since the article was dated April 23, 2011, more may have been added.
Another article later the same year, also in the Financial Times (November 25, 2011), carried this headline in its “House & Home” section: “Hot Property Converted Chapels”. It showed listings for small ex-religious buildings in remote areas located in Surrey (UK), Dordogne (France), Le Marche (Italy), Costa Brava (Spain) and Rhode Island (US).
Property seekers in the UK read about religious real estate availability under “Mass Appeal.” (FT, H&H 3/30/13) which carried the subtitle “Buyers fall for the charm of old chapels.” A later edition (FT, H&H 5/24/14) listed properties of “Former Religious Buildings” with pictures of structures located in Provence (France), East Sussex (UK), Miami (US), Mallorca (Spain) and Tuscany (Italy).
The “Mansion” section of the Wall Street Journal (12/14/12) had a front-page article entitled “Religious Conversions” and went on to explain: “As congregations shrink, more churches are selling properties to residential developers. High ceilings and stained glass create ambience, but aging buildings make going from God’s house to townhouse a challenge.” The three-page article included interviews with residents of purchased church properties, one of whom enjoys ringing the church bell on New Year’s Eve.
The same article mentioned that “The Archdiocese of Boston closed 76 parishes in the metro area under a 2004 consolidation plan, selling 38 of those for just over $73 million.” Among the properties sold was “A Tudor-style church called St. Aiden’s in Brookline, Mass., where John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were baptized. It reopened in 2009 as a residential project.” It further stated that “The church was converted into nine high-end condo units that each sold for between $1 million and $1.8 million.”
Church property conversions in Canada have also advanced, especially in Quebec. A newspaper picture of a large gymnasium with Gothic windows (fortunately not with stained glass windows but ordinary window panes) was located in “Le St. Jude Spa” as developers turned a “former church into a facility that caters to the body instead of the soul” in a conversion that cost C$2.7 million. The article covering church conversions in Montreal concluded with a quote from the spa’s owner: “It’s a good reflection of where Quebec is now. Where the priests would say the Mass, we do massage.”
There must be a hidden message in that remark as care and concern for the body has largely replaced care and concern for the soul.
Back in New York…
New York properties are worth more than those of Boston or Montreal so real estate developers must be avidly awaiting any church properties that might be offered for sale. All it takes to start the process is for the Archbishop to issue and sign a decree that relegates a church building to “profane use.”
Interestingly, a recent article on religious real estate in a small local New York City newspaper featured an unidentified picture of a church with a “For Sale” sign in front of it. Underneath was the question: “Would you live in a condo that was once a church?”
With the massive reduction in churches used for worship as of the beginning of August, valuable properties may come on the market sooner or later. By way of perspective, the Archdiocese of New York, which just “merged” 140 parishes, covers three of the five New York City boroughs, including Manhattan, as well as several counties north of the City. Any parcel of land in Manhattan, no matter what structure lies on top of it, is considered prime real estate. It is made even more valuable by the mere geographic fact that Manhattan is an island, land is limited, and many more people want to live there.
Four parishes in mid-town Manhattan (where I reside) have been combined with two retaining open doors. The first Sunday after the amalgamation, the parish bulletin carried the following heading:
The Roman Catholic Parish of
Our Lady of the Scapular and Saint Stephen
Chapel of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary
In the City of New York
Our Saviour and the Chapel remain open with the first currently undergoing restoration to recover its more pristine original artistic and sacred appearance. Sacred Hearts replaced an older church of the same name that was torn down in the late 1990s and rebuilt in 2009 as a chapel appended to the construction of a retirement residence for our erstwhile Cardinal Archbishop, now deceased. The chapel contains a few statues salvaged from the original structure which was on the same site.
Our Lady of the Scapular, a Carmelite Church, was closed and demolished around 20 years ago and replaced with a large apartment building. But the parish name was appended to St. Stephen’s, located a few blocks away.
The biggest loss is the closure of St. Stephen’s, founded in 1848 and several times restored. Thousands, maybe millions, may have worshiped there until August 1st. In recent years, worshipers were without a full-time pastor and were served by a few dedicated retired priests who temporarily resided in an oversized rectory. The church was one of the many that fell under the Archdiocesan public-relations centered program of downsizing known as “making all things new.”
The façade of the St. Stephen’s Church is an official landmark whose architect was James Renwick, also known for designing St. Patrick’s Cathedral further uptown and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. There are many frescoes throughout the interior and a massive depiction of the crucifixion behind the white marble altar painted by the Roman artist Constantino Brumidi, best remembered for painting the interior of the rotunda in the Capitol building in Washington DC. The numerous stained glass windows cover two levels and were purchased from Franz Mayer of Munich, a Pontifical Institute of Christian Art. Not even the Munich Cathedral has such magnificent windows.
But why have a parish combining four names? Some sleuthing revealed that a parish name has to exist overtly—just in case at some future time a probated will of a newly deceased ex-parishioner might include a sum of money designated for a specific parish (even though the original building long ceased to exist). Another parish carrying the name would be able to collect that inheritance.
A shut-down church is a sad site to behold. It symbolizes the triumph of the secular over the sacred. The faithful parishioners of churches that have been deemed redundant continue to hope and pray for a miracle but realize that today even some miracles require an Archbishop’s decree.