Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize | St. Louis Public Radio

Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize

Aug 26, 2019
Originally published on August 26, 2019 6:15 pm

When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.

Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.

"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "

Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.

The percentage of Americans who belong to a church, mosque or synagogue has declined in the past 20 years, forcing some religious leaders to make a difficult decision: sell their houses of worship and downsize.

In the U.S., many religious buildings were built during periods of religious growth, said Cleveland State University professor of urban planning Robert Simons.

"The buildings we have that were built in the '40s, '50s and '60s are not really functional for today's perspective," said Simons, author of Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn: The Adaptive Reuse of America's Derelict Religious Buildings and Schools. "Too many classrooms, a little bit too big."

These large religious buildings can fall into disrepair, placing a financial burden on shrinking congregations. The process is a "vicious circle," said Simons, because congregations in deteriorating buildings may have trouble attracting new members, which in turn reduces donations.

"Why not revamp what we have?"

More than 6,800 religious buildings have sold in the past five years and more than 1,400 are currently for sale in the U.S., according to the commercial real estate database CoStar.

Some will be sold to other congregations, while others will become something entirely different — like a nun-themed coffee shop.

In Columbia, Ill., Cafe on the Abbey opened last year inside the former convent of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.

Cafe on the Abbey co-owner Danny Ball calls its logo of a nun drinking coffee "playful and respectful." The coffee shop is one part of a multimillion-dollar development in Columbia, Ill.
Shahla Farzan / St. Louis Public Radio

Co-owners Danny Ball and Marcia Johns-Brooks are leaning into the history of the building. Patrons can nibble on a slice of pineapple preacher's cake along with a cup of Nun's Habit coffee — under a life-size painting of nuns enjoying a meal together.

Even the logo, a nun drinking coffee, pays homage to the building's previous life.

"We've been very playful with that," said Ball, who also serves as the restaurant's head chef. "Playful and respectful."

The coffee shop is one piece of an $8 million development, which includes a hair salon, event space and loft apartments.

Ball said he is thankful the buildings found a new life after the Catholic congregation moved to a new location across town in 2013.

"Anybody can bulldoze something down and build something new," he said. "But why not revamp what we have?"

Preserving desirable characteristics

Revamping old religious buildings can come with hidden costs, especially if developers have to run plumbing and heating vents through thick stone walls.

A new construction project might have fewer surprises, said Simons, but old houses of worship often have unique features that customers find desirable.

"The exterior of the building, the belovedness it has among the community, that's all a positive," he said. "What you really want is the stained glass and the beautiful interior finish."

It was overwhelming to see that we could wake up to the stained glass shining through in the morning. - Kelly Schaefers

That's exactly what drew Chicago residents Kelly Schaefers and her friend Sue Benjamin to Clifton Heights Inn in St. Louis.

"It was overwhelming to see that we could wake up to the stained glass shining through in the morning," Schaefers said. "I couldn't say no to any of it."

With its Gothic doorways and dark wood interior, Clifton Heights Inn still looks like a church — but Benjamin said she didn't feel any qualms about that.

"I was surprised. Like, 'Wow, this really is a church.' They kept that part very much intact. Some might say, 'Eh, I'm feeling a little uncomfortable about that,' but I found it to be very beautiful," she said.

But Lisa Macheca said her church turned inn has occasionally caused some confusion. She remembers one couple who walked into her bedroom while she was napping.

"They just thought this was a church to come in and tour," Macheca said, chuckling. "I don't know who screamed louder."

Running the bed and breakfast also brings more meaningful encounters. Many of the guests are people who once worshipped here. They come back for weddings, anniversaries or sometimes just to peek inside.

Not long ago, the inn hosted a wedding for a woman whose grandparents had been married in the church 80 years ago.

For Macheca, having a relationship with that community has been an unexpected gift.

"I thought I was just going to run a bed and breakfast, but that's really not been the case at all," she said. "It's amazing the connections I've made with people. I just love hearing their stories."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The percentage of Americans who belong to a church or mosque or synagogue is declining. That has left some religious leaders struggling to maintain large and aging buildings. Some are opting to sell and downsize. St. Louis Public Radio's Shahla Farzan reports on what is happening to some of these empty houses of worship.

UNIDENTIFIED WORSHIPPERS: (Praying in Hebrew).

SHAHLA FARZAN, BYLINE: Worshippers at B'nai Sholom Temple in Quincy, Ill., are gathering at their synagogue for the last time.

UNIDENTIFIED WORSHIPPERS: (Praying in Hebrew).

FARZAN: The congregation of about two dozen is selling its 150-year-old building because it can no longer pay for its upkeep. Speaking after the final service, Rabbi Justin Kerber said they're still planning to meet for worship in a nearby church building, but it's hard to let go of a place so full of memories.

JUSTIN KERBER: It is like a funeral in that everybody is telling their stories and laughing and celebrating the life - and yet that life is over, and a new, different life is beginning that nobody quite knows what's going to be.

FARZAN: It's a scene playing out across the U.S. According to the commercial real estate database CoStar, about 1,400 religious buildings are for sale nationwide, many of which will become something entirely different.

DANNY BALL: So here we have our heaven on a plate, which, heaven on a plate - it's a triple-layer coconut cake with cream cheese.

FARZAN: Danny Ball is the co-owner of Cafe on the Abbey in Columbia, Ill., which used to be the convent of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Last year it became a coffee shop. The owners are leaning in to the history of the building. There are images of nuns everywhere, even in their logo, which is a nun drinking coffee.

BALL: We've been very playful with that, playful and respectful.

FARZAN: The cafe is one piece of a multi-million-dollar development which includes a salon and event space. The congregation relocated in 2013, and Ball says it's good the building isn't empty.

BALL: I mean, anybody can come in and bulldoze something down and build something new. But why not revamp what we have and make that work?

FARZAN: But there can be hidden costs, says Cleveland State University professor Robert Simons. He studies adaptive reuse of houses of worship.

ROBERT SIMONS: With any rehab project, you've got the unknown.

FARZAN: Like having to break through thick stone walls to run plumbing. But Simons says many religious buildings have unique features that some developers find desirable.

SIMONS: What you really want is the stained glass and the beautiful interior finish.

SUE BENJAMIN: I was surprised - like, wow, this really is a church.

FARZAN: Sue Benjamin recently stayed at Clifton Heights Inn in St. Louis which used to be a Methodist church.

BENJAMIN: They kept that part very much intact, which I know in some places might, say, feel a little uncomfortable about that, but I found it to be very beautiful.

FARZAN: The owners of this inn are Lisa and Dan Macheca. She says they ran into some challenges soon after buying the church, including a $5,000 heating bill.

LISA MACHECA: And I felt like crying. I'm like, oh, my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?

FARZAN: They put in all-new insulation and wiring and plumbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

MACHECA: Here we are on the second floor.

FARZAN: She says the inn that looks like a church has caused some issues.

MACHECA: One couple woke me one time walking into the bedroom, just thought, you know, this was a church to come in and tour. And I don't know who screamed louder.

FARZAN: Running this church-turned-inn also brings more meaningful encounters. Many of the guests are people who once worshipped here. They come back for weddings, anniversaries, sometimes just a peek inside. Macheca says having a relationship with that community has been an unexpected gift.

For NPR News, I'm Shahla Farzan in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.