Churches into condos: Great story, but where did the people in the pews go?

Location, location, location.

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed a news trend -- stories about urban churches being closed and going up for sale? Try to imagine the property values involved in that wave of change that's hitting the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. How many angels live in the air-rights space over some of those prime addresses?

These stories tend to focus either (a) on church politics involving which churches will close and which will stay open or (b) the business deals involved in redevelopment. Both are logical angles for news, yet I have often wondered why journalists are not all that interested in the often painful, poignant and significant stories linked to WHY the churches are closing.

Not all urban churches struggle and die. What are the forces that are at play in these structures, which often have played historic roles in their communities. GetReligion readers will know that, in particular, I am intrigued with the interesting mix of doctrine and demographics that affect many fading Catholic parishes. Demographics is destiny? Ditto for doctrine. You see this in the death of many oldline Protestant churches, as well.

So where are the faithful going? What happened to the families and children in many of these flocks? Among Catholics, what happened to the priests and nuns? Are the families leaving? Shrinking? Non-existent? All of the above?

Look at this new Boston Globe story (a very interesting one, methinks) about some historic churches that are going condo. This is interesting stuff, in terms of issues of design, engineering and even historic preservation. But read it all and tell me: Why zero interest in the state of these congregations?

... Tinkering with the old and the holy, it turns out, comes with a particular set of challenges. For one thing, neighbors are often uneasy at the thought of stuffing condos -- often inhabited by wealthy outsiders, no less -- into an institution where past generations were married and baptized.
“Anybody who goes into a neighborhood and buys a church, without having some knowledge and sensitivity, they’re asking for trouble,” said Boston developer Bruce Daniel, who spent years fighting South Boston residents on his plan to put condos on the site of the closed St. Augustine’s Church.
Daniel originally proposed demolishing St. Augustine’s and erecting a new building, a plan he now admits was not realistic.
“It made more economic sense to knock it down, but we knew that wouldn’t happen,” he said. “We weren’t surprised when the neighbors said no. There’s a lot of sentimental feeling about that building.”

Just the building? Is the only issue here whether folks out walking their dogs in a gentrified neighborhood will be upset seeing, as the story puts it "a gleaming, glassy cube ... punch through the roof of the stone church, built in 1877"?

I get the fact that this is a business story. But does this final quote feel a bit, well, cold to anyone else?

“These are architecturally significant buildings,” said Daniel, the St. Augustine’s developer. “It adds a lot of character and flavor to the city to keep them around, and I’m all for that — as long as the numbers work.”

Maybe a sentence or two on the faithful ghosts in these sacred spaces?

THUMBNAIL DRAWING from Finegold Alexander Architects, used by The Boston Globe.

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