More Than A House Of Worship

By A.J. May • Photos By Danielle Debley

People around the world watched awestruck as fireman fought a blaze that had broken out on the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019.

Even Parisians with an anti-clerical streak paused in a moment of shared loss of an iconic landmark and symbolic center of public life in the French capital.

At the same time, with considerably less public awareness, the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church was in process of closing 10 churches in the Harrisburg area with the potential of virtually wiping out the physical presence of a major religious denomination in the state’s capital city.

In France, within hours of the blaze being brought under control and while the embers were still cooling, the French government pledged to restore and reopen Notre Dame and major corporations had pledged hundreds of millions of dollars towards the billion plus dollar estimate for rebuilding.

In Harrisburg, outside of the sometimes tense and vocal dialogue between church authorities and congregants of the affected churches: crickets.

Understandably, the 300 to 400 families who regularly attended services at the 10 churches were concerned mainly about the loss of a physical place of focus for their spiritual lives.  There are dozens of other Methodist churches within easy driving distance of the buildings slated for shuttering.  In fact, it could be argued that many more Harrisburg area Methodists already had made that choice to abandon the city. 

Yes, church attendance is down all over the country but not as precipitously as in urban core areas. Urban congregations are shrinking and aging rapidly. Church sanctuaries built to seat hundreds might see as few as a dozen or two participants at a typical Sunday service.   It is a common thread today among most major denominations, not just Methodists.

Major mainstream denominations share a common plight.  Shifting community practices are impacting how people express spirituality.  People are not simply shopping more online and abandoning bricks and mortar stores; they are finding it’s easier to share a meme or emailed “thoughts and prayers” than to put on a suit and tie to sing hymns on a Sunday morning.

But bricks and mortar churches have developed a meaning and role far beyond worship services and Sunday school.  Churches typically are the focal point of the neighborhoods where they are located, hosting a wide variety of community outreach from scout troops to exercise and yoga classes to Alcoholics Anonymous and soup kitchens and food banks.

Churches, like the 10 in the process of closure in Harrisburg, are typically among the largest structures in a given neighborhood.  Vacant properties become attractive nuisances, magnets for vandals, squatters and salvagers.  Neighbors become concerned about impact on property values. Churches are hard to market.  The Methodist closure plans create ripples of uncertainty well beyond the concerns of members of the affected congregations.

Most people see churches as good neighbors.  They don’t throw wild and noisy parties or play loud music late at night and generally are careful about property upkeep.

But when a church is shuttered, what happens next?  A lot depends on the size of the property but there are four basic choices available:

• Demolition and clearance.

• Resale to another denomination for use as a worship facility.

• Preservation as an historic artifact or monument.

• Adaptive re-use.

Adaptive re-use could raise concerns.  Here are some of the ways churches have been recycled:

• Other denomination’s purchase. The Hadee Mosque at Green and Division Streets in Harrisburg was a Lutheran Church until a few years ago.  The new Muslim congregation has invested significantly in refurbishing the property.

• Single family residence.  Peace Chapel in Shipoke was renovated and restored as a four-bedroom house in the 1990s.  Similar conversions of small churches and one room school houses dot the countryside.

• Restaurant. A former Methodist Church in the center of Linglestown was converted more than a decade ago into a restaurant and currently serves as a special events venue for Spring Gate in the Village.

• Brewpub. The former St. John the Baptist Church in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood was closed as a parish more than 25 years ago and recycled as the Church

• Theater.  The home of the First Church of God on North Fourth Street in Harrisburg until 2015 now provides performance and classroom space for Gamut Theater Group. The building was built in 1850.

Other possible uses include commercial office space, apartments or condominiums, group residences, libraries and art galleries.

The fact remains that churches are hard to market.  Currently, a quick online search revealed real estate listings for some three dozen churches in Pennsylvania, ranging from small, country chapels to cathedral sized edifices in Philadelphia.  Most real estate agents contacted have never handled a church sale. Some expressed doubt that a newly vacant church property would have a strong impact on neighboring property values.  None had considered the impact of 10 properties suddenly dropped on the market might have on prices and volatility.

While the church closure process has been underway in a public fashion for a year, it hasn’t attracted much concern outside of Methodist circles.  Only the Riverside UMC facility on North Fourth Street near Italian Lake has been listed for sale.  Ownership of the actual church properties lies with the Susquehanna Methodist Conference, not the individual congregations and that body is awaiting the completion of a full review and acceptance process by the individual congregations.

Zoning is also an issue.  While most neighbors would defer to having a religious community as a non-conforming use no matter what the denomination, a brew pub or halfway house or flea market might be a tougher sell.

While general concern over the impending closure has yet to materialize, one community group has weighed in – the Historic Harrisburg Association (HHA). Just as international businesses stepped forward to help save Notre Dame in Paris, HHA has announced the establishment of a Historic Church Preservation Fund with 100 percent of the proceeds directed by donors toward preservation of one or more of the endangered churches.

David Morrison, HHA executive director, says three of the 10 targeted churches have been identified as having special historical significance by the preservation group. They include:

• Grace United because it had served as the state’s interim capitol after the original statehouse burned in 1897 and includes unique architectural features such as Harrisburg’s only known Tiffany stained glass window.

**Editor’s note: When Harrisburg Magazine went to print, Grace United Methodist Chruch was slated for a proposed merger into a new United Methodist faith community called “The Journey.” However, strong interest to keep this historic landmark as a United Methodist Chruch was demonstrated by the congregation and the community, leading to a change of plans. Given the historic presence of the cathedral-like buidling in front of Pennsylvania’s Capitol and the church’s role in housing the state legislature after the Capitol in 1897, Harrisburg Magazine is happy to report that Grace Church will continue to serve people of all walks of life in its present location at 216 State Steet, Harrisburg.

• Camp Curtin church, because it stands on part of the site of the Union Army’s largest Civil War training camp and because it was constructed with the help of donations from Civil War orphans.

• Derry Street church because of its focus as a multicultural congregation supporting a wide array of community programs in an architecturally significant building.

“We enlisted assistance from Partners for Sacred Places, a national organization based in Philadelphia, and along with representatives of the three churches, we convened numerous exploratory meetings to assess the situation,” says Morrison.  “Our primary recommendation was that the churches be given time to develop strategic plans for their future sustainability.  In April, the Methodist Conference asked the churches to do precisely that.”

Among the possible strategies:  maximizing revenue from auxiliary real estate; expanded programming and social outreach; fundraising beyond the immediate congregations; creative partnerships; and seeking to absorb membership from churches that are closing or closed.

“Historic Harrisburg recognizes that these churches hold great value that extends far beyond their status as historic landmarks,” Morrison says. “Their roles in their respective neighborhoods, their outreach and mission work, and their community services, if lost, would create a distinct void.”

Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who attended one of the group strategy meetings, emphasized that the City of Harrisburg depends on its churches, and that without them many needs would go unmet.  The mayor pledged technical assistance and in-kind support.

Morrison notes that the current problem is larger than simply the Methodist church. “We recognize the precarious position of many urban churches of various denominations, but in many respects, their presence in our City is more important than ever,” he says. “Although many older churches suffer from lack of parking, declining membership and rising maintenance costs, they nevertheless play an important role in sustaining healthy neighborhoods and the City as a whole.”

Calling them “community cornerstones,” he says they are much more than houses of worship.

“They are often our finest architectural landmarks; they are often sole sources of services, programs and hope for our most vulnerable citizens. Just as we have lost landmarks of all kinds over the decades – Front Street mansions, Colonial-era taverns, grand old hotels, movie palaces and more – we have lost some magnificent churches over the years.”