Church buildings in Pa. find new lives

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    In cities throughout Pennsylvania, people are finding creative uses for old churches.

    Walk a few blocks in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or any of Pennsylvania’s old cities, and you’re bound to see a house of worship. In Old City Philadelphia, these could be churches the founding fathers attended. In other neighborhoods, they could be former ethnic churches that served specific immigrant communities.

    Many of these churches are now empty or abandoned. In Philadelphia alone, there are about 60 to 80 vacant sacred places. “Given the decline in memberships, we think many many more will close,” says Bob Jaeger, president at Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit group that helps congregations make the most of their buildings. 

    Jaeger says that with shrinking attendance, congregations can’t afford to maintain old churches. When those church buildings shut down, they can sit empty for decades. This summer, churches have closed in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other cities.

    In cities throughout Pennsylvania, people are finding creative ways to repurpose these old, beautiful buildings. Sometimes, the buildings remain houses of faith. In Northwest Philadelphia, a synagogue built in 1947 became a Christian church in the 1970s, and turned into a mosque last year. Increasingly, the buildings are also finding secular uses.

    Changing Communities

    In the Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown, there’s an old Italian Catholic church that used to be called St. Michael of the Saints. After the neighborhood shifted from Italian to African American in the 1960s, the congregation shrunk, and the church closed.

    Tom Lisowski is 64, and he and his 18 cousins went to Saint Michael’s school. He used to sing during holiday events and school plays. “The nuns used to have us singing all the time,” Lisowski says.

    Lisowski has fond memories of the church. “It was so much part of who we were at the time,” he says. When it closed, “I think it was sad for me from the point of view that it was a piece of my growing up that was no longer there,” Lisowski says.

    Bob Jaeger says that each closed or demolished church is a loss to the community. One reason: when congregations leave, the services the church provided also disappear, Jaeger says. “The spaces where kids were served, where seniors are fed, where the homeless were sheltered, where you would have community meetings, where you would have concerts and recitals: all those things may be gone,” he says.

    Singing a New Tune

    A handful of developers are repurposing churches to serve changing communities like Germantown. Ken Weinstein is one of them. He’s the president of Philly Office Retail, the real estate group that owns the former St. Michael’s Church.

    Philly Office Retail bought the St. Michael’s building a few years ago. This summer, the firm started leasing space to “Greatness Is In You” a nonprofit performing arts program for inner-city kids.

    On a recent afternoon, a group of children from the program are rehearsing a song from The Wiz, a 1970s musical retelling of the Wizard of Oz. The students run and skip alongside wooden pews.

    The song is called “Everybody Rejoice.” Fitting, as the students are singing in the former church, with high, vaulted ceilings, bare white walls, and construction paper flowers taped to the stage.

    The founders of the performing arts program say they hope to bring the neighborhood something it’s been missing since the church closed. That means art programs and mentors for kids. On Sundays, the group also rents the space to a small congregation that needs a place to worship.

    New Lives

    Weinstein is in the middle of his fourth conversion project, a former Episcopal Church on Wayne Avenue in Germantown that will turn into a private Waldorf school. His firm renovated a former Lutheran church schoolhouse, which it now rents to a cafe called Little Jimmie’s. It is also buying Mount Airy Presbyterian Church, renting the sanctuary back to the congregation, and turning the offices into condos.

    Around the state, people have converted other churches into brewpubs, offices, concert venues, restaurants, and even indoor playgrounds.

    Weinstein says conversion isn’t easy. Many church properties require rezoning. There are physical barriers too. Churches often aren’t accessible for people with disabilities and don’t have enough exits or bathrooms to meet building codes. “Those are all changes that are expensive to make, if they’re at all possible,” Weinstein says.

    But Weinstein says he feels compelled to save old churches. They’re architecturally unique, and historically valuable.

    Abandoned, deteriorating churches can also be a blight on communities. “A house in a neighborhood may go vacant and it may not bring the whole neighborhood down, but something as big as a church can easily change a neighborhood for the worst very quickly,” Weinstein says. “We would prefer to renovate these churches, find a reuse, and have them be the center of that community, and the reason why a neighborhood improves.”

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