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Church closings become more common



Published: Sat, July 2, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Churches that have otherwise withstood the test of time are being sold off.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

ST. LOUIS -- Two dozen real estate agents, developers and the tire-kicking curious filed into Holy Innocents Church on a recent weekday. They were not there to pray.

Milling about and poking around, they envisioned the possibilities once the recessional hymn rings through the cavernous sanctuary for the last time, on Sunday.

"I have a client who's interested in turning this into a jazz and blues club," said Jerry Summers, a RE/MAX broker, pausing to admire the towering blue-and-green stained-glass windows that flank the 9,800-square-foot sanctuary.

Not even prayer will save Holy Innocents, in south St. Louis, and 18 other churches -- one built in 1860 -- that have been put on the sale block by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis. The sale involves 80 parcels of property -- schools, rectories, convents and churches.

This is business, and a painful business at that.

The heavy wooden doors on all those churches closed Friday, and buildings that in many cases were the spiritual and communal anchors of ethnic neighborhoods in this old Catholic city face a decidedly secular future, and perhaps the wrecking ball. The buildings, carrying a combined asking price of $30 million, are being sold separately and may eventually reopen as loft apartments, restaurants, theaters, clubs, museums and, in some cases, churches of other denominations.

The fit, at least in the short term, promises to be awkward.

Reasons for closing

Catholic churches, especially those in aging industrial cities, have been closing for decades as the urban faithful flock to the suburbs and the growth of American Catholicism levels off. However, the pace of closures is quickening, and for different reasons.

Seventeen Toledo, Ohio-area parishes are scheduled to close July 1 because they no longer can support themselves. In Chicago, the archdiocese is closing 23 schools and will merge or consolidate four more by the next school year. However, there have been no announced plans to shutter churches.

The financially troubled Boston archdiocese is selling more than 60 churches to help pay for sexual-abuse claims. In Canada, a Catholic diocese in Newfoundland last month announced plans to sell all of its churches and missions to help pay for a legal settlement stemming from actions of a pedophile priest.

The St. Louis archdiocese, which has closed 36 parishes since 1990, says the proposed sale involving 10 percent of its parishes is not tied to sexual abuse cases but is designed to strengthen the financial health of individual parishes, which are responsible for the operations of churches, schools and convents. The proceeds from the sale will go to the parishes that will absorb the dwindling membership of the shuttered churches.

"For us this is regional planning. ... We don't have the luxury of tiny parishes serving a few people," said Thomas Richter, the director of building and real estate for the diocese.

Part of the neighborhood

In a city where Catholic roots predate the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and where Catholics identified their tightly knit neighborhoods by their parish, the transition is a painful end to a treasured way of life for people like Dolores Roesch, who has spent all of her 64 years living in the shadow of the twin-steepled St. Boniface Church.

After World War I, many German street names here were Anglicized, but the industrious culture and tradition of this working-class German neighborhood -- part of what was known as "Scrubby Deutsch," as the south side often was called -- lived on.

Taverns, hardware stores, restaurants and corner groceries have been leaving city neighborhoods for years. In the Carondelet neighborhood, however, the 145-year-old St. Boniface, named for the patron saint of Germany, has been a constant in the face of dramatic economic change. Two parishes have closed and been folded into St. Boniface since 1932. Now St. Boniface, whose congregation has shrunk nearly 30 percent in the past 10 years, will close its doors.

"My grandparents built their house here 102 years ago because they wanted to walk to church," said Roesch, who lives in that well-tended brick home with the striped green-and-white window awnings. "Any funeral, any wedding, you had to be there to sing. It was what you did."

That was life in Carondelet, a life in the past tense. Now two-thirds of the congregation of St. Boniface are senior citizens. The Rev. James Gray, the white-bearded priest who closed a parish in Detroit before coming to St. Boniface, has sensed the future since he came here in 2001.

"You don't hear babies crying in this church," he observed.

Making the sale

The diocese believes some churches will sell more easily than others. Richter, the diocese's real estate director, said newer and more easily adapted churches and recently built rectories and schools likely will be bought by other religious denominations or, in the case of the closed Catholic schools, charter schools.

Richter, a former developer, said the target client always is another faith, but the diocese has to be open to other, nontraditional uses.

Attorneys for the diocese are writing restrictions into sale agreements to assure what Richter calls "nonsordid" use -- no houses of devil worship, no abortion clinics, no strip clubs or activities that would be in direct conflict with the church.

Overtly religious objects already have been pulled out of some churches in preparation for the changeover. Stained glass with clear religious symbols will be removed if the church is converted to another use. The iron cross was removed recently from atop the steeple at the 107-year-old Holy Family Church, a south side institution once dominated by city employees and Anheuser-Busch workers.

"When that cross came down it was like the church was in its underwear. The dignity was gone," said the Rev. Rickey Valleroy, an energetic former bartender who believed he had saved the parish on the strength of Friday night fish-fries and recent packed houses -- a doubling of church attendance.

Adjusting to loss

"I used to walk the neighborhood and dream of what the neighborhood was and whether it can be again," Father Valleroy said.

Apparently it cannot. In an era when people drive to church, not walk, Holy Family is ill-equipped with a 15-spot parking lot. The membership is nearly half senior citizens. The adjoining Catholic elementary school saw enrollment slide 20 percent in one year. And tucked amid the tidy brick bungalows and mature trees of the pleasant Oak Hill neighborhood, the parish does not have the main-thoroughfare visibility the diocese wants.

Father Valleroy said he is not troubled by Holy Family's becoming loft apartments, if that is its fate. "It's no longer a church anymore," the priest said.

Father Gray has no say in the matter, but he's been down the closure road before, in Detroit. The priest said he walked up the center aisle with a potted flower and smashed it on the floor. Then he picked the flower up and planted it in a new pot. Father Gray said he's not sure he "can pull that off here" because the pain of shutting St. Boniface is great.

"But a church building and bricks are not the faith," Father Gray said. "You take your faith and put it in another parish."




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