PHILADELPHIA — Hunger, health care, and urban violence are the usual subjects of concern when the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia gathers for its semiannual meetings.
But at the spring 2011 session, a new topic was cast into the mix: real estate.
A member noted that he was grappling with a growing stock of vacant churches. Hoping for a solution from his high-placed peers at the conference table, he got instead a chorus of me-toos.
"I always thought I could sell my buildings to you," a prelate of one Protestant denomination joked to another.
The group erupted in laughter.
"But it was kind of sick humor," Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. recalled. "We all have these empty buildings now. We're all in trouble."
They are costly to maintain and increasingly difficult to sell, but painful to demolish, even as they decay into neighborhood eyesores. There are now so many shuttered houses of worship — at least 300 estimated across the Philadelphia region — that the anxiety over what to do with them has spread beyond religious circles and into City Hall and suburban town councils.
One real estate website, LoopNet.com, had 16 Philadelphia churches listed for sale last week, ranging in size from 1,700 to 52,000 square feet, and in price from $110,000 to $5.2 million.
Among them is a 6,775-square-foot edifice, built of tan brick and topped by a copper cross and onion domes. A tall, gray stone Gothic-style church in "poor to very poor" condition can be had for $250,000. An additional 64, ranging from storefronts to stately giants, are on LoopNet's site but unpriced.
The surfeit is "a big problem that does not lend itself to any ordinary solutions," said Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, an architect and executive director of the city planning commission.
The soaring steeples, lofty ceilings, vaulted arches and stained glass that imbue religious structures with a sense of sacred singularity, he said, also make them "difficult to readopt" to other uses.
On the Main Line, the hollow presence of the First Baptist Church of Ardmore, closed last year and threatened with demolition, is prompting the Lower Merion Township, Pa., commissioners to write an ordinance easing the way for developers to convert houses of worship to commercial and residential use.
First Baptist's demise is not an anomaly.
Within Lower Merion's 24 square miles, "we're aware of more than a half-dozen churches whose congregations are looking to wind down their operations," said commissioner Philip S. Rosenzweig, who heads the planning board.
"It used to be that if a congregation was diminished enough, it would combine with another, or sell to a different congregation or religious institution," he said. "But that's not the way of the world anymore."
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia estimates that fewer than a dozen synagogues have come up for sale in the past decade. The glutted market is almost exclusively Protestant and Catholic, driven by trends both secular and spiritual.
Young adults attend worship services less often and contribute less money than their elders. In the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which has closed dozens of parishes in the past 20 years and nine this year, weekly Sunday Mass attendance is about 18 percent, a quarter of what it was two generations ago.
Among evangelicals, megachurches are flourishing, often at the expense of small local congregations.
Lately, when a struggling church succumbs to such forces and goes up for sale, banks are nervous.
"We've had buyers come to us with half the asking price as down payment," said Bishop Claire Burkat, head of the Lutheran Synod of Southeastern Pennsylvania, "and they still can't get a mortgage."
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.
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."
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