Empty sacred spaces become white elephants

By David O'Reilly

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

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

A recent storm caused $12,000 in water damage at Our Lady of Grace, Capella said. He also frets that Camden County may start billing him for real estate taxes if it no longer serves a religious use. Adding to his woes, thieves broke into the former rectory, "so now we have to have our security people go by, every day and night, to do a walk-through."

Two evangelical congregations expressed interest in some or all of the site, he said, "but haven't been able to come up with the money."

Last week, however, representatives of the Somerdale School District toured the vacant parish school.

Afterward, Capella allowed himself some optimism.

"They seemed very interested," he said.

Some beloved structures may well face the wrecking ball in the future, warned Robert Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia nonprofit that seeks to preserve religious architecture.

Deciding which should be allowed to fall and which should survive will demand a kind of "triage," said Jaeger.

Aesthetics are not the sole criteria for determining if a church merits rescue, Jaeger said. "A lot of these places are anchors of our neighborhoods and key to our social safety net."

In an effort to keep ailing congregations alive, Jaeger said, Partners recently began pairing them with small theater companies willing to pay rent for much-needed rehearsal or performance space. "Even a food cart vendor" might want to rent a church's capacious kitchen, he said.

But theater and arts groups with steady cash flow are likely to rescue only a few religious sites, said Greenberger, the deputy mayor.

What is needed, he said, is an inventory of shuttered churches, which would be the basis for assessing their aesthetic and social value.

"We may have to lose some," he said, "but fight hard to preserve others."

©2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer; Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com ; Distributed by MCT Information Services

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