Sharing Christine Bohlen’s article in The New York Times about disused places of worship in Europe on Facebook, I said that in Toronto the tendency seems to be to turn these places into condos. This Little Italy church, for instance, has long since made the transition.
That’s not something that can be done with every church, in Toronto, in Europe, and elsewhere. What can be done with often beautiful buildings which can no longer serve their original purpose? Some people in Europe are trying to answer this question in an organized fashion.
When a church closes its doors, it is a sad day for its parishioners. When it is slated for demolition, it is a sad day for the larger community, as Lilian Grootswagers realized in 2005 when she and her neighbors in the small Dutch village of Kaatsheuvel learned that St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church was due to be torn down and replaced by a four-story apartment block.
Leaping into action, Ms. Grootswagers started a petition drive, collecting 3,250 signatures, almost one-quarter of the village’s population, and sought help on a national level. As it turned out, St. Jozefkerk, built in 1933 as the centerpiece of an unusual architectural ensemble, was eligible to be on a register of historic buildings.
Today, nine years after it held its last Mass, the church is still standing, empty but awaiting its next incarnation. Its rescue was a victory for a widening effort across Europe to preserve religious buildings in the face of rapid secularization and dwindling public resources.
Begun as a grass-roots movement in 2009, the Future for Religious Heritage took shape in 2011 as a network of groups from more than 30 countries, dedicated to finding ways to keep churches, synagogues and other religious buildings open, if not for services, then for other uses.
But making the transition from places of worship to some other purpose is a tricky one, which necessarily involves not only community support, but also managerial skills. “You can only manage a building if it has income,” said Leena Seim, executive officer of the Future for Religious Heritage, which has an office in Brussels.