DETROIT — It's a buyer's market for believers in metro Detroit.
Even before this month's announcement of upcoming Catholic church closings, the Archdiocese of Detroit had several churches up for sale from a previous round of shutdowns.
There are also dozens of schools, convents and rectories up for sale or lease — and the prospect of 48 more parishes in Detroit and the suburbs coming on the market in the next five years.
In Detroit, in particular, the possibility of a dozen or more Catholic church closings looms as another large wound to the city's ravaged landscape. Some of the churches that are threatened are historic, skyline-defining landmarks — cavernous works of Old World artisanship that would be difficult to resell, experts have said.
"You can trace the city's history and ethnic migrations by where the churches are. Historic buildings give a sense of place and make the city familiar," said William Worden, the retired head of the city's historic designation advisory office. "Churches do that because they are striking structures and different from their surroundings."
Worden said he worries that several Detroit churches recommended for closure are nationally recognized historic treasures. In particular, he cites three downtown Detroit churches — St. Joseph, Sweetest Heart of Mary and St. Josaphat — which were tentatively advised to work toward a merger and the closure of one of the three churches.
"We're beginning to see some pretty important historic structures under threat of closure," said Worden. "All three are on the National Register of Historic Places, and St. Joseph is listed as one of National Significance. How do you select among three important buildings?"
When the Archdiocese of Detroit needs to sell property, it turns to the firm of Real Estate Professional Services, with offices in Utica and Southfield, Mich. The firm has listings for more than 50 churches in metro Detroit alone and 20 elsewhere in Michigan of all denominations.
The firm is run by brothers Michael and Kevin Messier, brokers who learned the business from their father, Richard, now living in Florida with a third brother, Matthew, who sells churches there. The brothers say they do about 70 percent of the church business in Michigan.
"If you're a church congregation, you can afford to be a little choosy" right now, said Michael Messier.
Although it's a buyer's market, it's tough to get a mortgage, real estate brokers have said.
"Before the recession, probably nine out of every 10 church sales were financed through some kind of lender — whether it's Chase or Comerica or their denominational headquarters," said Michael Messier. "Now, nine out of 10 are seller-financed, either through a land contract or a seller-financed mortgage because banks won't. And if you've got to sell your properties, that's how you do it," said Michael Messier.
Last year, the pair sold 41 churches — 38 were land contracts, meaning the buyers paid the sellers directly on a payment system; two were for cash, and one was bank-financed.
"That tells you everything," said Kevin Messier. "Four years ago, you could have turned it around. Since the bottom fell out of the economy, it's just real, real difficult."
Kevin Messier said churches are selling for 50 percent less than before the recession.
Michael Messier says most congregations want buildings that seat 300-450 people. "There are fewer buyers for 1,600-seat churches," he said. Many churches in Detroit and the suburbs, were built during the city's heyday and boom times, and they are of the large variety. That holds true, especially, for some of the city's landmark Catholic churches.
When the Archdiocese of Detroit announced a round of church closings in 1989, it sold many of the churches, mostly to other religious congregations. But it also tore down some structures, such as St. Thomas the Apostle on the east side, because it was unlikely to be sold.
The costs for maintaining a large, historic edifice can be budget-busting. During a previous round of church closings, St. Agnes Catholic Church, at 14th and LaSalle Gardens just west of Henry Ford Hospital, absorbed a neighboring parish to become Martyrs of Uganda Catholic Church. Martyrs of Uganda closed in 2006, when the parish decided it couldn't bear maintenance costs of the church.
The Gothic church was built in 1924, and it's where Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta visited when she came to Detroit in 1979 and established a Missionaries of Charity convent there. Now, the old parish's buildings are a looted, vandalized eyesore. Archdiocese spokesman Ned McGrath said the archdiocese's first preference is to sell churches to a religious denomination, but sold St. Agnes to an entity that never occupied the building.
In 2006, the Archdiocese of Detroit closed the east-side parish of St. Anthony, merging it with another church, Annunciation/Our Lady of Sorrows, to form a new parish, known as Good Shepherd Catholic parish using the Annunciation site. The Archdiocese sold St. Anthony, built in 1901 on Sheridan off Gratiot, a few years later.
It's now being run by a cleric known as Archbishop Karl Rodig, a member of the Worldwide Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ, a breakaway group from the Roman Catholic Church. He calls his church the Abbey of St. Anthony.
Rodig said his group bought the church in October of 2010 for an undisclosed sum.
"We purchased the church with the purpose to help revitalize a run-down neighborhood. The presence of a church in a neighborhood that has been declared abandoned says something to the people who live there," said Rodig.
Michael Messier said he has received calls already from prospective buyers wondering about the properties the archdiocese may put on the market. But the archdiocese isn't the only denomination trying to sell large churches.
One property the Messiers are trying to sell is the former Greater Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church on Mack on the edge of Indian Village on Detroit's east side. It once was Deutsche Haus, a German social hall that features a 1,600-seat auditorium, three-quarters balcony, kitchen, classrooms and a bowling alley.
The Baptist church's congregation dwindled too low to support keeping up the massive structure. It's price — once near a million — is now listed on the firm's website as $325,000.
"There's always been activity with churches looking to relocate. The market being down hasn't stopped it," said Michael Messier. "Some smaller churches that would not have the ability to get a mortgage from a bank, do have the ability to do seller financing. And it's afforded them some opportunities that in times past, they wouldn't have had."