Preservation Society Works to Stop Sell-Off of Catholic Churches

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by Anita Carey  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  May 14, 2019   

Once-sacred spaces are being torn down or re-purposed into clubs or offices

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - Historic churches are being sold off or demolished all across the country, and one canon law expert is trying to stop it.   

Another casualty of the sex abuse scandal is the loss of historic church buildings. Parishioners who have sacrificed to pay for repairs, build up the coffers or meet demands of their bishop to keep their churches open often find themselves facing the closure of their church in dioceses all across the country.

In 1988, the archdiocese of Detroit stunned the Catholic world with the announcement it would close 43 churches, a third of all the churches in Detroit. Over 10,000 Catholics were affected by the closures. 

Since that time, dioceses all over the country are merging parishes and closing churches.

Oftentimes, these churches, built in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, are in less desirable areas of cities, and the demographic shifts to suburban living have left them with a small number of devoted weekly parishioners. Other times, the traditional beauty of the church and a dedicated pastor can grow the parish into a faith-filled "family" that can sustain the church.

Church Militant talked with Brody Hale, founder of Catholic Church Preservation Society, who has worked and negotiated with dioceses to save a dozen churches from the chopping block. Hale said some bishops are more willing to work with the faithful to save churches while others are unwilling to work with the former parishioners.

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St. John Vianney Church in Pittsburgh
(Photo credit Ryan Loew/Public Source)

Hale has a Juris Doctorate from Boston College Law School and is currently earning a master's degree in public administration. Hale's hometown church was closed, and though he was too young to save it, its loss was a keen influence on his personal mission to save as many of these buildings as possible. 

Hale explained that churches are sacred spaces and differ from a parish. He explained a parish is a community of the faithful, but a church "is a sacred edifice, not merely a building." 

"The Vatican Congregation for the Clergy ... issued a set of guidelines, making it abundantly clear that parish and church closures are two separate processes," he said. 

Prior to 1917, canon law forbid the closures of churches, and then it was only allowed if the church building was completely destroyed — not even that it was too expensive to repair, but it had to be utterly destroyed. In 1983, Pope John Paul II promulgated a change to the Code of Canon Law that was called for by Pope John XXIII on the same day he called the Second Vatican Council.

These changes incorporated a change to a doctrinal-theological structure that more reflected the spirit of Vatican II as opposed to the Pio-Benedictine code of 1917 that focused more on the norms and procedures. 

"For the past 36 years, there has been a massive uptick in closures," Hale said. One change to the 1983 Code of Canon Law is that the process to close a church for grave reasons other than its destruction was established. Hale said this process is "grossly abused."

"We have seen thousands of churches that were in reasonably good shape that were closed and sold, and these are churches that if the faithful had more information, likely many of them could have found continued sacred use if not as places of regular worship," he added.

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St. Joseph Church, Cabery Illinois

There is a hierarchy of what former churches should be used for, but he said, "Churches should retain their sacred character if at all possible."  

"For 2,000 years, it was an unquestioned fact that these are places where God dwells," Hale explained. Nothing is a better illustration of the loss of the sense of the sacred than the wholesale sell-off of parishes across America. 

"Churches are not just buildings," Hale emphasized. "They are sacred spaces." 

The faithful who are facing the closure of their church need to act quickly.

"Time is at a premium," Hale explained. Ideally, a small group of individuals should work together to form a non-profit group that can raise the funds to care for the church before a bishop issues a decree of relegation to profane, but not sordid, use that officially closes the church.

Once the decree is published, parishioners have 10 useful days to file a canon law recourse to challenge the bishop. 

The guidelines to close a church were deemed so important that the Vatican sent a copy to every bishop in the United Staes. Despite that, some bishops are violating canon law — some egregiously. In Mobile, Alabama, Abp. Thomas Rodi has failed on numerous occasions to prove where the decree to close St. Joseph in Mobile was published. 

Parishioners filed two canon law recourses, but the church was sold to a private developer before the Vatican responded. It is currently under construction and will be made into office space.

Hale is also working with former parishioners of St. Joseph in Cabery, Illinois to save the church from the literal wrecking ball. Their group has received a pledge of a quarter of a million dollars to restore the church.

Despite the $250,000 pledge, the bishop of Joliet, Bp. Robert Conlon, ordered the church torn down. 

The group's challenge is waiting to be heard by the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican's highest court, and Bp. Conlon has been barred from dismantling it. Parishioners offered to buy the rectory, but Bp. Conlon tore it down. 

In the diocese of Pittsburgh, Hale has been unable to reach an agreement with Bp. David Zubik to save any church in his diocese. In the case of St. Anthony's Church in Monongahela, parishioners sued the diocese for fraud.

Parishioners claim that they were told if they raised enough money, St. Anthony's would stay open. They raised over $100,000 and completed over $2 million in renovations between 2000 and 2010 but Bp. Zubik closed the church anyway. 

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Interior of the Altar Bar

Pittsburgh is also the diocese where a former Catholic Church was turned into a nightclub. In 2001, St. Elizabeth Church on Penn Avenue closed and was sold for $350,000. Restauranteur Clint Pohl invested almost $1 million and turned it into a dance club called Sanctuary that featured religious imagery. 

Later, it changed hands and was renamed Altar Bar and continued to feature performers such as Snoop Dogg, Imagine Dragons and Public Image Ltd. Hale argued that this would be considered sordid use. 

Hale said the bishop's decree to close a church is important because it lists the concerns the parishioners have to address to save their church. 

Hale has offered his help to Catholics who are facing the closure and sale of their church. He does this pro bono and has never even asked for donations, but with the increasing numbers of groups working with him, the incremental costs to fight the closures are starting to mount. 

Watch the interview with Brody Hale for more information on how to fight church closures. 

Featured image is of the 2013 demolition of St. Patrick's Church in Watervliet, New York. A Price Chopper bargain store was constructed on the site.

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