Unlock possibilities – new uses for buildings that parishes no longer need

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Albany parishes should find other uses for buildings after churches close

Bethany WelchRestructuring. Consolidation. Mergers. And now, layoffs. Those words have been used to describe the current state of affairs in the area’s Roman Catholic churches. Last week Bishop Howard Hubbard previewed the pain to come. He said that about 20 percent of the 190 worship sites will close or be reorganized across the 14 counties that make up the Diocese of Albany. Some of the lay staff who work at the parishes involved might lose their jobs. The decision on which churches will close is expected this weekend, but it is likely that urban parishes will suffer the most.

In the last five decades, churches in America’s inner cities have dealt with diminishing fiscal and human resources, shifting neighborhood demographics, and falling attendance at services. Some move outside the city to follow migrating residents. Others redefine their demographic base and mission to serve the local community. Catholics have been reorganizing, merging and closing parishes deemed most vulnerable.

Parishioners are often fervently opposed to these closings. Years ago in San Francisco and locally, several sought to keep parishes open by taking their case to Rome. Detroit locals took their fight to the media when church leaders attributed the closure decisions to “white flight,” prompting a heated debate among black and Latino parishioners. Outside Boston, disgruntled parishioners have been holding what The New York Times referred to as a “quiet rebellion,” barricading themselves into churches slated to close.

As an urban Catholic parishioner and an advocate of nonviolent protest, I will be the first to admit that these closings can feel like abandonment.

Does it have to be this way? Could the parishes be reused to address some of the city’s most pressing issues?

As a public policy researcher, I know we can and we should. It is time to rethink the church in the city.

Consider that the physical footprint of the urban parish typically consists of four units. There is the sacred worship space, a rectory to house priests, a convent for the nuns or sisters who once operated the parochial school and a school building. We know that in the 19th century Catholic schools equipped immigrants with language skills. Parish networks helped workers secure jobs. So, too, can the footprint of the modern Catholic parish further the common good in a new age.

Hundreds of successful adaptive reuse projects across the country demonstrate the feasibility of this idea. Today, there are former parishes, rectories, convents, and schools being used for charter schools, senior housing, low-income housing, community centers, job training, after-school care, day care and youth programming.

The most common adaptation of space is for housing. Convents and rectories are often suitable for one-bedroom apartments for seniors. School classrooms can be transformed into multiple bedroom apartments for working families. Rather than boarding up more windows on blighted buildings, neighbors clean up their stoops and welcome the new location for after-school care. The income from leasing or selling the property is reinvested by the church to further other aims — spiritual or charitable.

Some regional church authorities, such as the archdioceses of Philadelphia and Boston, have created non-profit organizations to redevelop former church properties. Other dioceses have found local non-profits to do the same work. The key is to create a systematic approach to dealing with the property inventory.

Adapting former parochial schools to house charter schools is perhaps one of the easiest transitions to make. The real estate has many of the features these schools desire.

Neighbors are happy that the property does not succumb to blight, and in some cases, their own children benefit from the new school. Charter schools in Rochester and Buffalo have worked with the local dioceses to secure both lease and sale options. Although the practice has not been widely endorsed in the Capital Region, the diocese has one short term lease with Albany Preparatory Charter School.

Yes, the current economy makes pursuing tax credits and financing for adaptive construction challenging, but policies favorable to urban revitalization are in place to do it. Too many public systems, organizations, and businesses have left urban residents behind. Paradoxically, parish closings can represent an opportunity to buck the trend.

Going down (and up)

Population trends in some of the cities served by the Albany Diocese:

Declines (since 1960)

Albany, 27 percent

Schenectady, 25 percent

Amsterdam, 39 percent

Glens Falls, 25 percent

Gains (since 1960)

Saratoga Springs, 73 percent

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. Senior Research Associate
Published in the Albany(NY) Times Union January 14, 2009