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.

Houses of Worship after Closure and Sale: Recognizing the Enduring ‘Readability’ of Religious Meaning”

Angela C. Carmella

When houses of worship are in active use, they carry with them both great aesthetic value and deep theological meaning. When that use ends, however, the sacred meaning is not stripped away. The buildings can’t simply be reduced to a price per square foot to the highest bidder for adaptive re-use. Instead, they retain the accretions of religious significance acquired over time. As noted in a 2018 report of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture on “Decommissioning and the Ecclesial Reuse of Churches,” their “evangelizing readability remains even if they lose their liturgical functionality” (4.24.). Thus, they remain part of the religious and cultural heritage, and a sense of social responsibility continues to inhere in them. 

While it does not use the phrase, the report can be seen as applying the Catholic notion of the “social mortgage” — the debt that encumbers property with social duties to all, especially the poor. In the context of former houses of worship, that debt is particularly acute given the faith commitments that involve the love of neighbors and social justice. The concept of the social mortgage can help churches set priorities regarding appropriate adaptations for closed buildings, choosing, for instance, nonsecular uses over secular, public uses over private, and non-market uses over market where possible. Indeed, many adaptations follow roughly along such lines, with former worship spaces being repurposed as homes, libraries, museums, hotels, and cultural spaces. We also see conversions to affordable housing, immigrant hospitality centers, and co-working offices. 

My thesis is that churches should make every effort to retain the sacrality of their once-sacred spaces by ensuring not only beautiful adaptations, but also socially responsible uses. Even though conservation professionals, preservationists, architects, and investors often desire to retain many elements of sacrality, the stewardship of former worship buildings should not be delegated entirely to the state or market. Religious institutions have a moral obligation to be involved in the ultimate disposition of their former houses of worship because those buildings, subject to the social mortgage, should preserve some form of faith commitment on the site. 

The Story of Immaculate Conception Church, Boston 

As an associate in the real estate department of Csaplar & Bok, Boston, I was part of a team representing the Jesuit owners of the Immaculate Conception Church from 1986-1988. Built in 1861 as an example of Renaissance Revival architecture, the church had a long and significant history in the South End and in connection with Boston College. It was especially well known in the music world because the space provided magnificent acoustics for the famous organ it housed. But by the 1980s, the resplendent upper church had not been used for Masses or concerts for quite some time because of a dwindling congregation, rising costs of heating, and needed repairs. Masses were held instead in the basement. 

Although the church’s exterior was protected as part of a historic district, the Jesuits wanted to renovate the interior space to make it usable again — to accommodate a smaller congregation with a redesign in accordance with Vatican II’s theological standards, and to add some non-worship ministerial uses like pastoral counseling and offices. This involved significant alterations to the church’s interior, including the removal of the ornate main and side altars. 

This proposed redevelopment was enormously controversial. On the question of whether the interior should be designated, many constituencies claimed a stake in the property’s future: historic preservationists and related architectural and cultural professionals; worshippers, especially those whose ancestors’ donations had built the church; the organist community and music lovers, appalled that the redesign would compromise the acoustics; and members of the greater community who loved the building’s holy and beautiful interior space. 

In response to a petition, the Boston Landmarks Commission took jurisdiction over the interior. During the designation process, the commission sought to protect significant architectural elements like the altars, and even claimed authority to help design the new altar in order to ensure aesthetic compatibility with other elements within the space. Renovation permits were ultimately granted after a series of redesigns and lawsuits.

While seeking permits to proceed with the redevelopment, the Jesuits also sued the commission on grounds that the landmarking of worship space violated their constitutional protections for religious freedom. The new “Jesuit Urban Center” was up and running in 1990 when Society of Jesus v. Boston Landmarks Commission came down from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The court agreed with the Jesuits, finding that “[t]he configuration of the church interior is so freighted with religious meaning that it must be considered part and parcel of the Jesuits’ religious worship. We conclude, therefore, that [the state constitution’s provision on worship according to conscience] protects the right freely to design interior spaces for religious worship, thus barring the government from regulating changes in such places, provided that no public safety question is presented.” The effect was to exempt worship interiors from the jurisdiction of landmarks commissions in Massachusetts. 

The Jesuit Urban Center operated through the 1990s until 2007, serving a predominantly gay congregation. Despite the small but robust worshipping community, by 2007 the Jesuits could no longer afford to maintain the church building. Their valiant efforts to keep a worshipping community and other religious uses on the site fell victim to economic realities. 

In 2016, after the long quiet spell in real estate in the post-2008 recession era, the church building was sold to a developer. As repurposed in 2019, the building now consists of 63 spectacular luxury units in the interior space, and the building is nearly full. No longer known as the Immaculate Conception Church, the building sports a new name on the sign over the formidable entry doors: The Cosmopolitan. Because the exterior remains part of the historic district, the statuary must remain: the Virgin Mary in a recessed area and a magnificent, robes-a-flowing Jesus atop the front roofline apex. Thus, the state preserves the exterior religious heritage while the market governs the interior use — the past and present maintaining a peaceful if uneasy co-existence.

Religious Rights in Tension with Religious Heritage 

By the time the court decision was issued in 1990, I had already been teaching at Seton Hall Law School for several years and writing about church preservation. I was convinced that a church was the only entity legitimately concerned with its own active worship space. 

At the same time, however, I had to admit that all the groups that claimed to be stakeholders — the worshippers, the preservationists, the architectural historians, the musicians, the local community that loved the building — really did have something valuable to say. I struggled to imagine a forum that would have invited their participation without the coercion of the designation process. 

This clash of views expresses the difference between how some U.S. laws protect the self-determination of church property owners and other laws reflect the societal interest in religious and cultural heritage. Owners are protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, under state constitutions, and under a federal religious land use law, especially for siting and building houses of worship. This necessary protection often fosters an overly privatized view of religious heritage with no accountability for the stewardship of that heritage. For instance, a religious institution might choose to sell buildings it might otherwise repurpose because real estate values are high, or it might resist landmark designation precisely because designation can interfere with resale value. 

At the same time, many religious institutions do practice good stewardship of their religious heritage in collaboration with preservationists, architects, historians, and other cultural property professionals, especially where active houses of worship are also historic landmarks. In those situations, the church owner is accountable to the public for changes to the building. But if liturgy ceases and the building is sold, those professionals and the state (if the building is landmarked) become the primary caretakers of the church’s religious heritage. And if, as is usually the case, the property is not subject to some kind of preservation restrictions, the result will likely be the loss of the building unless architects and investors can create and support adaptive reuses for the structure. 

Preserving Religious Heritage Post-Sale: New Uses Matter  

When it becomes necessary to sell a closed building, the religious institution need not, and should not, automatically cede all control to the buyer to maximize the sale price. Instead, it should engage in a process of prayerful discernment over the post-closing uses. Helpful guidance for such discernment is emerging. In 2018, the Pontifical Council for Culture, together with other entities, sponsored a conference to discuss matters of “decommissioning places of worship and the integral management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage,” which involved Catholic representatives from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. Its report recognizes the many reasons for church closings and sales and sets forth guidelines on “how to identify new pastoral responses that are more adequate to the emerging needs of peoples and communities seeking space for social, cultural, recreational or hospitality purposes” (1.9.). The conference followed Pope Francis’ focus on care for the environment and the poor, to encourage thinking of closed churches in terms of “reuse, restoration, regeneration and recycling” (1.11.).

While the report didn’t use the terminology of the social mortgage, its conclusions clearly reflected the same goals of generosity and inclusion on the post-sale site. It noted that: 

[a]s far as possible and compatibly with the original intention of the building, it is desirable that when it can no longer be maintained as a religious building as such, an effort be made to ensure a new use, whether religious (for example, entrusting it to other Christian communities), cultural or charitable. Commercial for-profit reuses seem to be excluded, while social enterprise usage may be considered. What should be preferred are reuses with cultural aims (museums, conference halls, bookshops, libraries, archives, artistic workshops etc.), or social aims (meeting places, charity centers, healthcare clinics, foodbanks for the poor etc.). For buildings of lesser architectural value, transformation into private dwellings may be allowed. (6.7.)

Rounding out the list were recreation, tourism, and spaces for silence and meditation open to all. 

Catholic canon law has long required that churches, once transformed into “profane” (secular) uses, should never be used for “sordid” purposes. So a former church could not be used as an abortion clinic or brothel. But contemporary thought on the issue as expressed in the report — which involves a global and multicultural approach — goes well beyond this bare minimum and considers the affirmative task of “redeploy[ing] resources in ways compatible with original meaning” (3.19.). When the church owners begin the process of discerning the new use, the report concludes that it “must involve heritage and conservation specialists, architects and surveyors, together with the parish and the wider community having an interest in the building” (6.4.). Indeed, this is the non-coercive forum I had tried to imagine: the religious owner itself inviting the participation of heritage professionals to assist it in the process of discernment. 

Depending upon that process of discernment, a religious institution might opt to control future uses of the building by imposing a restrictive covenant that runs with the land and binds the new purchaser and future owners. When Catholic hospitals are sold or taken over by secular health care systems, bishops sometimes require that the medical ethics rules continue to apply, ensuring by asset purchase contract or deed covenant that a once-Catholic hospital is not used for abortions, sterilizations, or family planning. This has been criticized as unwarranted church control over health care long after the facility’s church affiliation has ended. But if church leaders understand how to impose these types of restrictions in the transfer of hospitals, they might consider similar controls to ensure that future uses of once-active houses of worship are consistent with social responsibility and faith commitment.

So What’s Wrong with Luxury Condos and Luxury Offices?

Closed houses of worship are often sold for high-end condominium development. Developers and their creative professionals work hard to make these types of adaptive reuses work, and it is not my goal to criticize them. The adaptations are usually beautifully and masterfully done, and are certainly not “sordid” uses of former churches. And when developers give new life to the structure and protect its religious elements, they sustain religious and cultural heritage. But luxury uses in this context are in some ways ironic uses. If, as the report notes, the “evangelizing readability [of former houses of worship] remains even if they lose their liturgical functionality” (4.24.), one cannot miss the profound contradiction between the opulence of these spaces and an economy short on affordable housing, and a deep incongruity between privatized space and formerly shared communal space. Yet we know that financial pressures on religious institutions are immense, and that their entire real property portfolio and local market conditions become relevant to this process of discernment. Indeed, in addition to severe losses in church attendance, the need to compensate victims of clergy sex abuse has become a significant driver of closings and sales of religious properties. As the report reminds us, houses of worship “have to be able to follow the life of the communities, who are called to operate with discernment in the dialectic between faithfulness to memory and faithfulness to their own time” (4.25.). So an argument can be made that selling church real estate to the highest bidder is the prudential response to providing the victim compensation that justice demands. How sad that religious institutions themselves, in failing to steward errant clergy, now may be prevented from stewarding their heritage in order to make amends. At this sensitive historical moment, such economic pressures make it especially difficult — yet all the more necessary — for religious institutions to discern, along with heritage professionals, where it is possible to fulfill their social responsibilities and faith commitments through their properties, even after closure and sale. ♦

Angela C. Carmella is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, New Jersey, teaches and writes on topics of Religious Land Use, Property Law, the Religion Clauses, and the Catholic Social Teachings.

Recommended Citation

Carmella, Angela C. “Houses of Worship after Closure and Sale: Recognizing the Enduring ‘Readability’ of Religious Meaning.” Canopy Forum, May 3, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/05/03/houses-of-worship-after-closure-and-sale-recognizing-the-enduring-readability-of-religious-meaning/.