Empty sacred spaces become white elephants

By David O'Reilly

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Published: Friday, Aug. 17 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

An ecclesial abundance sounds nice, but not to accountants' ears.

In the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, comprising Philadelphia and the four suburban counties, there are nine closed churches. Each costs an annual average of $55,000 to maintain.

"That's nearly half a million dollars we're not putting toward meeting human needs," said Bennison. "God must look down and say, 'Where's the gospel in this?' "

"See that rope?" Howard Cottman asked, pointing to the slender spire of New Life Evangelistic Church in Philadelphia's Fairhill section.

"That's where we caught the guy."

Built in 1889 as St. Bonaventura Roman Catholic parish, the stone church looks from a distance like a storybook castle rising above the treetops.

Up close, it's a ruin.

Thieves — including the man whom the 21-year-old Cottman and some other neighbors caught swinging from the steeple three years ago — have torn most of the copper cladding from the second, or clerestory, level.

Today, its timbers are exposed and rotting. The large, stained-glass windows are beginning to collapse. Holes pierce the steeple's slate, and heaps of plaster and debris litter the long-locked vestibule below.

Founded to serve German immigrants, St. Bonaventura was among 14 urban parishes that Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua shuttered in 1993. A year later, it was bought for $110,000 by the New Life Evangelistic Fellowship of Paterson, N.J., but it has been abandoned for nearly a decade, neighbors say.

Bishop Carswell Jackson, pastor of New Life, did not return requests for comment.

The market for vacant Catholic and mainline Protestant churches is made up mostly of fledgling congregations. Many, like New Life Evangelistic, quickly find themselves socked with maintenance bills, and in over their heads.

Kenneth McIlvane, a Deptford, N.J., real estate broker who handles many of the parish property sales in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden, N.J, said the inquiries he gets typically are from "startup churches with little or no financial backing." But he also receives calls from "well-qualified religious organizations looking to expand their ministries."

In the months ahead, he may have more buildings on his hands than he knows what to do with.

In 2008, Camden Bishop Joseph Galante announced the most sweeping parish consolidation of any Catholic diocese in the United States. By its conclusion early this year, 32 parishes were left; 92 others were dissolved into 38.

His action — "it surprised even me," he said — virtually erased the signs of frenzied church-building in the diocese a half-century ago.

Blessed with dozens more priests than he needed, Archbishop Celestine Damiano in 1960 decided that nearly every town in the six-county Camden Diocese should have its own parish.

So energetically did Damiano raise roofs that on a single day — June 10, 1961 — 18 parishes opened.

Among them was St. Luke's in Stratford, N.J.

But in December 2010, Galante dissolved it, along with two adjacent parishes. Their properties were merged to create the 12,000-member Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, based in Lindenwold, N.J.

St. Luke's church is preserved as a "worship site" within the new parish, used for weekend Masses and occasional weddings and funerals.

Closed forever, however, was the third parish: The 1950s-era Our Lady of Grace in Somerdale, N.J.

"It still belongs to us," the Rev. Joseph Capella, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, said. He called it "quaint, but architecturally undistinguished," seating 300.

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