'Endangered' Places of Worship Can't Pay for Repairs

High-tech church services might be drawing new members in some parishes, but many churches and synagogues housed in historic buildings are in grave financial danger because of dwindling congregations, crumbling facades and insufficient funds for repairs.

“It’s a national problem,” said Tuomi Forrest, director of programs at Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based organization devoted to helping houses of worship out of their predicament. “We get calls from congregations in every state of the country.”

While the problem is widespread, endangered places of worship are predominantly in urban and rural regions.

Sacred Places raises awareness of the issue by periodically compiling a “most endangered” list of especially troubled houses of worship. It also works with both the religious and historic preservation communities to train congregations on how to raise money for building restoration.

Currently, Sacred Places has partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to highlight six urban churches and synagogues in need: Beth Hamredash Hagadol Synagogue in New York City, Mount Bethel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Acts of the Apostles Church in Philadelphia, St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Denver, First United Methodist Church in Seattle and Quinn Chapel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago.

"The houses of worship are an important anchor -- historically, architecturally and in terms of the community and the people," said Peter Brink, senior vice president of programs for the National Trust. "They're part of the whole life of the neighborhood."

Brink said there are thousands of churches and synagogues around the country that are endangered. To be classified as endangered, a house of worship has to be 50 years old or older, and in need of renovations too costly for the parish to pay for them.

Partners' 2001 endangered list showed that the Beth Hamredash Hagadol Synagogue, an 1850 Gothic Revival building, needed $250,000 to repair the severely fire- and water-damaged roof and ceiling. Philadelphia's Acts of the Apostles Church, a 1902 Gothic Revival building, needed $1.2 million to reconstruct two masonry towers with severe structural problems.

“In many cases there are congregations that for a variety of reasons don’t have the resources or the knowledge base to effectively repair these places of worship,” Forrest said.

Among those reasons, he said: A decline in parish membership or a lack of financial wherewithal among the congregants to make the renovations happen. And the shaky economy isn't helping the situation, either.

"The bad economy is putting more pressure on, both in terms of raising the money for the repairs and increasing the needs of the community services that churches and synagogues provide," Brink said.

The problem is particularly prevalent in the Northeast corridor and the Midwest, where there are numerous historic places of worship between 100 and 175 years old. Some churches and synagogues face closing -- or worse, demolition.

"At risk are scores of houses of worship that are magnificent architecture and hundreds upon hundreds that are good contributing architecture," Brink said.

Partners would like to see the philanthropic sector become more flexible about contributing to places of worship. Many foundations have blanket policies against giving to religious organizations; others have policies against donating money for building repairs.

The organization also wants more city and federal government involvement, as well as efforts by wealthier and suburban parishes to help struggling ones.

“It’s an issue of concern, not only to preservationists but to anyone interested in the quality of urban life and the quality of our communities,” Forrest said.