A virtual conference sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory (CSLR) featuring scholars, experts and practitioners who will examine issues facing religious congregations, neighborhoods, towns, and cities where houses of worship are falling into disrepair or vacancy. View selected videos and browse all essays here.
“Closing Congregations: On the Hunt for Patterns”
“Thousands of churches close every year. What will happen to their buildings?” asked a journalist writing for the Religion News Service in March 2022. Signs of struggling or closed congregations are easy to find — for rent and for sale signs dot properties and several non-profit groups like Bricks and Mortals in New York City have started to support the repurposing of religious buildings. Case studies abound but are there patterns to church closures? Are the patterns the same for Christian and non-Christian congregations? What factors influence whether closed congregations become high-end condominiums (like in much of Greater Boston) rather than community centers or affordable housing? And how do the people — congregational leaders, city officials, real estate professionals, and others — negotiate these transitions and transactions? As the fraction of people in the United States who are religiously unaffiliated continues to grow, closures of churches and other sacred spaces with long-standing histories are likely to continue.
We — a sociologist, architectural historian, and undergraduate researcher — began a pilot project in 2022 to test methodological approaches for tracking and analyzing the closing of local congregations. This project aims to explore the ways in which such closures affect environments by examining how the buildings are repurposed or sold and how distinct actors (religious leaders, architects, community leaders, planners) involved in these transitions negotiate them. The repurposing of these sacred spaces involves a complex set of issues related to the land, buildings, sacred and material objects, and memorial gardens — often including human remains — that are often present on the premises. These issues are further complicated by the various local and national state and religious institutions that govern them. While the primary focus of this pilot project is on the changes to the built environment, it is important to note that the social transitions experienced by congregants, religious leaders, and community members are also central to the process of closing and repurposing properties.
For this pilot project, we defined congregations as local organizations registered with the state or a religious tradition where people gather on a regular (usually weekly) basis to express and practice their spiritual and religious beliefs. We focused on the greater Boston area, as defined by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), which includes 101 cities and towns grouped into eight subregions. Our goal was to develop a complete list of congregations in the greater Boston area that closed between 2000 and 2022, and to explore their closure patterns. We focused on the physicality of sites and called a space closed if the congregation using the space had permanently stopped using it regardless of whether it merged, relocated, or disbanded. If congregations were physically connected to other sites (like religious schools, cemeteries or rectories), we also gathered information about them but did not otherwise include free-standing religious schools, monasteries, etc. We aimed to gather basic information about each site — name, street address, religious tradition, year of closing, building owner, whether it is registered for National Historic Preservation, and use post-closing (i.e. housing, community center, sacred space) — to identify initial patterns in the causes and consequences of congregational closings.
There is no single source or comprehensive list of congregations — open or closed — by location in Greater Boston. Accordingly, we used many data collection methods to try to compile this list and build a dataset.
Newspaper and Internet Searches
First, we identified congregations that closed in Greater Boston through the Boston Globe, other regional and local newspapers, and the internet using search terms like “closed church/synagogue/mosque + city name.” Lechtchiner, the undergraduate researcher, identified 60 congregations that closed between 2020 and 2022 using this technique. Newspaper sources were heavily biased towards Catholic congregations, especially following the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese which was covered extensively starting in 2002. For some of the sites, we located additional publicly available materials — photos, deeds, historical materials, and Boston Planning and Development Agency’s planning documents.
Second, as we identified sites through media sources, we also found architects and developers who have participated in church building transitions in the greater Boston area. Identifying these professionals allowed us to find more sites that fit our criteria through their websites. Not surprisingly, private, for-profit developers and architects most frequently participate in luxury church-to-condo redevelopment as opposed to community-oriented or affordable housing projects.
National and Regional Religious Organizations
Third, concerned that media and internet searches are not comprehensive and might over-represent congregational transitions in which there was conflict or something deemed media worthy, we also contacted sixteen diocese and regional level religious organizing bodies to inquire about congregations that closed since 2000. We received a list of all closed or merged parishes from the Boston Archdiocese and heard back from half of the other fifteen groups we approached. We also talked with leaders about the Massachusetts Council of Churches to ensure that they do not maintain a list of closed congregations, and to get their perspectives on these questions.
Fourth, we attempted to search the deeds in each of the towns in Greater Boston to find buildings identified as religious by the state in which there was a property transfer between 2000 and 2022. While not every property transfer signifies a closure, such a list — when triangulated with other sources — helped identify additional cases. Online databases of deeds in Massachusetts, however, do not allow for searches by organization or building type. Searching by owner or physical address allowed us to access the deeds for specific locations and learn more about possible property transfers. It is currently not possible, unfortunately, to search the deeds comprehensively by building type, making this method ineffective.
Additional Sources / Online Archives
Finally, we considered whether existing databases and longitudinal surveys have information that would help build this dataset. We used the database Data Axle to search for business openings and closings within the NAICS code 813110, which is designated for religious organizations. Our aim was to identify potential church closures that were not previously identified through existing datasets. We selected various categories of religious organizations, including “Chaplains,” “Christian Ministries,” “Churches,” “Church Organizations,” “Church Consulting,” “Congregations-Messianic,” “Convents & Monasteries,” “Christian Science Practitioners,” “Clergy,” and “Clergy and Pastoral Counseling.”
The search engine yielded 3056 results for verified businesses (phone-verified and quality-checked). However, the search for “Closed/Out of Business Records” that were suspected to be out of business returned only 185 results. Most of the 185 organizations identified using this technique were outside of our criteria because the NAICS code 813110 is more general than our selection criteria and includes schools, clinics, food pantries, etc. Additionally, this dataset does not provide information on store-front churches and other sacred places that might be registered as another type of business. We also looked at Social Explorer, longitudinal surveys like the National Congregations Study, and Faith Communities Today (FACT) surveys for additional information and sites.
We gathered information about each site, including, if known, the name of the congregation, its street address, the year it closed, its religious affiliation, what it was converted to, the property owner, its connection to National Historic Preservation efforts, use notes, and the source of the information. Following Taylor Hartson’s approach in “Converted Structures: Exploring Material Expressions of the Sacred and Secular,” we then used internet searches and Google Street View to assess the extent to which a congregation was converted into another use. Google Street View was particularly useful in identifying instances of demolition and adaptive reuse of buildings. Unfortunately, Google Street View is biased chronologically since records prior to 2009 do not exist, making it impossible to see changes before that time. We also visited a handful of these sites, and Lechtchiner is now conducting case studies of two as her senior thesis.
To date (data collection is ongoing), we have identified 139 congregations that closed in Greater Boston between 2000 and 2022. They are located in 48 different towns and cities, with Boston having the largest number of closures (36, 26% of total closures), followed by Lowell (10, 14% of total closures). The largest number of closed congregations were Catholic (100, 72%), followed by Baptist (13, 9%). With the exception of 2004 when a large number of Catholic congregations closed, roughly 2-3 congregations closed per year with no noticeable trends between 2000 and 2022.
At 14 locations (10%), the land or buildings from closed congregations have not been repurposed. Of the remaining, the largest number have been converted to housing (52, 37%) or repurposed as sacred spaces (37, 27%). Smaller numbers are being repurposed as commercial spaces (3), housing + retail (3), community spaces (3), performance venues (2), recreation centers (1), artistic sites (1) and funeral homes (1). As we continue these analyses, we will map these new uses onto characteristics of neighborhoods to consider additional trends.
Lechtchiner is writing her senior thesis about two of these closed congregations. The first, Blessed Sacrament Church, is a registered city landmark and former Catholic church located in Boston’s Latin Quarter. Initially built in 1917 and closed in 2004, Blessed Sacrament Church became the focal point of a large-scale community organizing effort over the past two decades. Community members, leaders, business owners, and residents came together to demand that the church complex be exclusively utilized for the benefit of the community. Specifically, they advocated for the creation of affordable housing and a designated community space that promotes youth development through Afro-Latin arts and advances the mission of Boston’s Latin Quarter cultural district plan.
The construction for redevelopment is projected to begin by Fall 2023. This case study highlights the unique role that a previously-sacred space can play in community engagement and cultural preservation, particularly in the face of gentrification and a hostile urban environment. It also highlights the various stages of development that a previously-sacred space undergoes as it is perceived as a public or publicly-owned space. Ultimately, this case illustrates the importance of sacred spaces in new forms of community engagement and in their battle against gentrification in urban environments.
The second case, St. Katharine Drexel Village is a proposed redevelopment plan by St. Katharine Drexel (STKD) Church, one of Boston’s few Black Catholic communities, which aims to transform city-owned land around the STKD Parish Center into affordable housing, community services, and a newly-renovated church structure. The St. Katharine Drexel Parish Center, located at 175 Ruggles Street, underwent significant reconstruction subsequent to a catastrophic fire in 1925. Its current adaptation is the outcome of a consolidation and real estate transfer involving four Black Catholic congregations within the city of Boston in 2005. It is noteworthy that this property had formerly housed a Ruggles Baptist church prior to its re-purposing.
At present, the site is in the midst of a redevelopment proposal phase, with construction slated to commence in 2025, contingent upon approval. Key actors in this project include the leadership of STKD and the Planning Office of Urban Affairs, a non-profit development organization affiliated with the Archdiocese of Boston that focuses on creating affordable housing on church-owned, city-owned, and privately-owned land. As a Black Catholic church, STKD is committed to ensuring its longevity in Roxbury as the neighborhood undergoes gentrification. Thus, the church’s leadership partnered with the Planning Office of Urban Affairs to propose a redevelopment project that benefits both the church and the surrounding community. This case exemplifies how distinct urban stakeholders cooperate or realign during the repurposing processes.
We have also learned in some detail about the Arabic Jumaa Mosque at 31-41 Quint Avenue in Allston, which made a significant transition from a Protestant church to an Islamic place of worship. This transformation was made possible by the acquisition of the Allston Congregational Church building, which was originally built in 1890 and designed by the esteemed Allston native, Eugene Clark. Exemplifying the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, the Allston Congregational Church building was recognized for its historical and cultural value by being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Subsequently, the building was purchased by a local business owner who undertook the conversion of the former church building into the mosque. The basement of the church is used as a daycare for the local community. As for the mosque, the repurpose and adaptation was achieved by implementing internal modifications such as the veiling of the cross and carpeting of the floors, which facilitated the transformation from a Christian space to an Islamic one. The Arabic Jumaa Mosque is open to all individuals who wish to attend Friday prayers and Ramadan services during the holy month of Ramadan and Eid celebrations throughout the year. This case illustrates an example of repurposing a church as another sacred space through internal architectural adaptations.
We conclude with more questions than answers as this research process continues. We hope these initial reflections encourage others to look for patterns in particular geographies alongside case studies of specific closed congregations. Developing methodologies that enable us to ask questions about congregations’ closing patterns allows us to further understand the impacts of gentrification and population redistribution on changing communities, and to identify strategies for mitigating the negative effects of these processes on those involved. ♦
Wendy Cadge is the Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University. She is the author of three books, Spiritual Care: The Everyday Work of Chaplains, Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine and Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America, and in 2018, she launched the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab.
Muna Güvenç is Assistant Professor of Architectural and Urban History at Brandeis University. Güvenç’s forthcoming book, The City Is Ours, illustrates how architecture and planning may provide opportunities for social justice otherwise unavailable to opposition groups that lack, or have been denied access to, more conventional channels for conducting politics.
Feigele Lechtchiner is a senior at Brandeis University, receiving a B.A. in Economics and Urban Studies with a concentration in spatial analysis and GIS. She is currently working on a senior thesis entitled “Sacred Spaces, Public Goods: Affordable Housing Development in Boston’s Catholic Churches.
Cadge, Wendy, Muna Güvenç, and Feigele Lechtchiner. “Closing Congregations: On the Hunt for Patterns.” Canopy Forum, May 3, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/05/03/closing-congregations-on-the-hunt-for-patterns/.