When church buildings die

G. Jeffrey MacDonald of The Christian Science Monitor has tapped into a goldmine of a topic: What happens to churches when they must be sold to people who have something other than worship in mind. MacDonald's story is longer on theory than on examples of misdirected new uses for church buildings, but he understands what's at stake emotionally:

So sensitive is the territory that even the most respectable of reuses can stir up hard feelings.

For instance, some years ago in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a Baptist congregation outgrew its building and sold it to buy a new one. But those who remember worshiping inside still haven't accepted that someone turned their church into a private home, according to Lindsay Jones, a religious architecture scholar at Ohio State University.

"People stop him and tell him how they got married in his living room," says Mr. Jones. "They find it irksome. It's intrinsically tied to its original function, so [to them] he's exploiting it in a way."

. . . As an active Methodist layman for 60 years, Charlie Johnson of Port Charlotte, Fla., has taken part in a number of church building sales. Yet even when the people are moving on to something bigger and better, he always urges the congregation to be careful about the buyer.

"I would never want to see a house of worship turned into a bar, a saloon, or even a grocery store that sells alcohol," says Mr. Johnson. "It'd be denigrating the church."

In Maine, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland refuses to sell a building to any buyer who might turn the property into either an abortion clinic or a pornography business. Either use would egregiously violate values the church has always represented, according to finance officer David Toomey.

One of the best known ex-churches played a central role in Arlo Guthrie's hit song "Alice's Restaurant" (and the tedious film of the same title). In her book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans, Laura Lee traces the long history of the church, including Guthrie's success in restoring the building and turning it into, in his words, the "bring your own God" Guthrie Center.

A few other examples of churches put to radically different uses:

• This 1999 report from The Tennessean told of the former Greater St. John Baptist Church being assimilated into Al Woods' empire, which he "built on the sale of magazines and videotapes showcasing sex and nudity." A subsequent story in 2002 told of police closing six of Woods' businesses, including the former church, which he had named Private Fantasy.

• Club Avalon (the Old Limelight) in New York and the Gattopardo Café in Milan illustrate a mini-trend that inspired Steve Taylor's song "This Disco Used to Be a Cute Cathedral" (lyrics; free MP3).

• The former Seamen's Church Institute in Philadelphia, which began life as a bank, became home to MTV's Real World: Philadelphia.

One important detail missing from MacDonald's story: Many churches have rites to deconsecrate their buildings. Should a church ever reoccupy the Private Fantasy bookstore in Nashville, it might also consider a service of exorcism.

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