New Spirits Rise in Old, Repurposed Churches

For years, attendance rates have dropped and congregations have closed nationwide. But many reused religious spaces are still sanctuaries.

Paddy Burke, 19, in the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity house at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. The building used to be a Catholic church.Credit…

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By Amelia Nierenberg

Photographs and Video by Tristan Spinski

The pandemic has thrown religious worship into turmoil. Some congregations spent months meeting over Zoom, uncertain if in-person worship could be safe. Others struggled to keep the doors open as contributions declined. A few have closed their doors.

But even before the coronavirus hit, many of the same issues were afflicting religious institutions; the most faithful worshipers have aged and church attendance has fallen in recent decades. Often, congregations have sold their buildings to eager developers, who might tear them down or partition the cavernous spaces into pricey condos.

But not every flock-less church faces an afterlife as living spaces stuffed full of “exceptional quirks around every corner” for hipsters. Many have become different kinds of creative spaces and communal gathering spots, often providing what might be considered “secular ministry.”

It is unclear how many religious buildings are repurposed. Roughly 1 percent of the nation’s 350,000 congregations — or 3,500 — close each year, based on an analysis from Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study. But not all find new uses and some buildings are filled by different congregations.

In January, before the coronavirus hit the United States, The New York Times began checking in with the people and organizations inhabiting eight former churches. Then, the buildings continued to serve and delight their communities. Now, their transformations may serve as prophecies for more change to come.

Café Appalachia

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — At Café Appalachia, a restaurant in what used to be St. John United Methodist Church, good morning is not just good manners.

“When you walk in the door, someone had better say: ‘Hey, I see you,’” said Cheryl Laws, the founder and chief executive of Pollen8, the nonprofit group that owns the cafe. “That’s what we do around here.”

Before the pandemic, diners came together under the vaulted wood ceiling and stained glass windows to reflect over Appalachian comfort food. Now, they talk about the coronavirus, too.

“There’s sadness when a worshiping space changes, but this is a whole different kind of sanctuary,” said the Rev. Cindy Briggs-Biondi, the former pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church, which owns the building.

Café Appalachia, which opened in July 2018, also provides employment training for women in recovery from the opioid crisis, which has left West Virginia with one of the highest rates of death from overdose and touched nearly everyone.

“If Jesus were here now?” said Ronnie Skeens, a regular. “The way my faith works? He’d be back there cooking with them.”

Esplanade Studios

NEW ORLEANS — In late August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina took aim at New Orleans, the congregation of the Third Presbyterian Church in the Treme neighborhood gathered to pray. They did not know it would be the last time together under their shared roof.

Hours later, the sky cracked open. First came the winds, slicing through walls gnawed hollow by decades of termites. Then came the rains, dumping water into the basement and seeping into the spines of prayer books. The gothic revival building that had stood tall since the 1920s — first as home to a Presbyterian congregation, then to Baptists — sank to its knees.

Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, Misha Kachkachishvili opened Esplanade Studios in the space. He had established himself as an audio engineer working with local artists and bought the former church to court the composers working with the movie industry. Since then, Willie Nelson, Janelle Monáe and Eric Clapton have been among the dozens of artists who have recorded there.

The sheer size of the building — 14,000 square feet, 30-foot ceilings, four studios — has kept it up and running through the pandemic. Local jazz groups and the Louisiana Philharmonic stream concerts, safe at a social distance.

“I am not a religious person at all,” Mr. Kachkachishvili said. “But sometimes, you get goosebump moments, and sometimes you want to pinch yourself. It’s very spiritual.

The Internet Archive

SAN FRANCISCO — Once, in the age of papyrus, hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the seat of the world’s knowledge was at the mouth of the Nile in the Library of Alexandria. But a fire, started by Julius Caesar, incinerated much of the most expansive collection of human knowledge at the time.

Today, people carry human history around in their pockets, unlocked with a few taps and a scroll. But digital accounts are vulnerable. Servers crash. Web pages disappear. So Brewster Kahle, who struck it rich in the early dot-com age, founded the Internet Archive in 1996 to safeguard digital output for posterity. His idea was simple: “We’re going to build a library of everything ever published and make it freely available to everyone in the world.”

In 2009, more than a decade after he founded the archive, Mr. Kahle bought a Christian Science church, built in 1923, to house his operation. The shrinking congregation sold the building for $4.5 million and moved out, making way for servers and coders.

In the former nave — now called “the great room” — pillows made from early internet-era T-shirts adorn the pews. Servers blink in the center. They are the physical home of the Wayback Machine, which lets users time-travel through the web. In a way, in the archive, one can see the internet. Like a church, it is the abstract brought down to earth.

The Church Nightclub

DENVER — Regas Christou is a direct man. When he opened a club in a former church over two decades ago, he named it how he saw it. The Church heaved and jived for almost 30 years.

In March, when the pandemic struck, Mr. Christou shut it down. The lights stilled. The bar emptied. The electronic dance music stopped.

“We have no choice,” he said. “It’s a nightclub. We can’t turn it into an office building.”

Before the pandemic, the regal space, previously an Episcopal church founded in 1889, was full of dancers in a dizzy haze moving to a crushing techno beat. Now, it is quiet and still awaiting its rebirth.

At another of his clubs, Mr. Christou has turned the parking lot into a gallery for patrons to look at work by local artists. At the Church, he hopes to stream live D.J. sets outdoors so the club can keep spreading its groove.

“The hardest part about the Church was not to create something new,” he said. “The hardest part was to preserve what was old, and to respect it.”

Phi Sigma Kappa at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

TROY, N.Y. — Not every conversion from a religious space to a secular one goes forward seamlessly.

In 2011, when the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute moved into the church and rectory of St. Francis de Sales, a former Catholic church in upstate New York, it concerned some.

Although the church had sat vacant for two years, neighbors were not too pleased with the conversion. Christer Herrmans, the chapter’s former president, was trimming the bushes out front when a woman approached him.

“‘It’s not right what you’re doing in that building,’” he said she told him. “But I thought: ‘We’re taking care of that building. If it weren’t for us, it’d be falling apart.’”

The students live in the rectory, and they gather in the church itself. Every Sunday evening, they hold a chapter meeting. It is a fraternity house without booze. They have agreed with the city to use the property as a dry space.

Mr. Herrmans is not religious himself, he said, but he said a fraternity and a church have much in common, and he draws strength from the familiar rituals. “Having tradition and rituals,” he said, “that’s a very religious type of thing.”

The Preacher’s Son

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — In the summer of 1971, William Christopher Cooper, a youth minister, gave his first sermon at the Bentonville United Methodist Church in northwest Arkansas. His father had been a minister, like his father before.

Almost four decades later, in 2017, his son, Matt Cooper, helped open a restaurant in a former church across the street. Along with partners, he called it the Preacher’s Son. There was not really any other option.

“My father’s side are all Methodist ministers and my mom’s side are all in food technology,” Mr. Cooper, the executive chef, said. “I guess they kind of got what they wanted: I’m the executive chef of a church.”

Mr. Cooper leans on local farms and butchers for ingredients, serving the community where he has lived his whole life. Now, during the coronavirus, the restaurant has outdoor dining and tables spread out through the space.

“What a church does is provide a place for people to gather and to support each other,” he said.

Audible

NEWARK — Audible, a digital audiobook and podcast service, has fully embraced the tech world’s affinity for proprietary slang.

Meetings are sometimes “scrums.” The offices are sometimes “campus.” If an employee accidentally calls their flagship building a “church,” colleagues might gently correct them. It’s the Cathedral. Specifically, it is “Innovation Cathedral.”

“It’s supposed to be our own space of inspiration, to take you out of the traditional work space and help people think about: ‘What is the next thing that we need to invent?’” said Anne Erni, the chief people officer (another term), who oversees personnel and facilities.

To make the former church suitable for office workers, Audible built a three-level structure inside the cavernous space. The structure, built in 1933, was once the Second Presbyterian Church, which housed a congregation founded in 1811. The congregation dissolved in 1995 and Audible began restoring the building in 2015.

“We removed as many religious icons as we could,” Ms. Erni said. “Our goal is not to make this represent any one religion, but to represent the diversity of thought and perspective that comes from having a diverse population.”

Still, the original stained glass windows are surprisingly humanist, with images of figures like Aristotle and Louis Pasteur as well as Jesus. “It’s things that bring it down to: ‘What are the great moments in history when things changed?’” Ms. Erni said.

Since the pandemic started, most employees are working from home. But the Innovation Cathedral waits, as so many other office buildings across the country do, for their eventual return.

South River Vineyard

GENEVA, Ohio — Gene Sigel likes to tell people who visit his winery that Noah, as recounted in Genesis, planted a vineyard after the Great Flood.

“Sometimes, people would come in and say: ‘This seems odd. We shouldn’t be drinking in a church,’” said Mr. Sigel, the owner of South River Vineyard, a vineyard and winery based in a repurposed Methodist church, built in 1892. “I’ve often pointed out that the church has a long history in Europe of being involved in alcohol production.”

Mr. Sigel, an economic historian, knows his stuff, both about monasteries with vineyards dating to the Middle Ages and the roots of the building he now inhabits.

“They had lots of chicken and biscuit dinners in the basement,” Mr. Sigel said, talking about the small congregation that occupied the space before it fell into disrepair in the 1970s. “I feel like it’s maintained its original sense of purpose.”

More than two decades ago, he stopped by the old building. When he asked to take a photograph, the woman who oversaw the property told him he could just have the whole place. (The building was free, but he had to buy the 16 pews, each costing $75.)

In 2000, he employed local Amish carpenters to take the building apart, piece by piece, and then move it 52 miles to his farm, which has served people outside during the pandemic.

“These are not difficult buildings to repurpose,” he said. “There could be all kinds of bars and restaurants and breweries. Long term, those are the things that have survived: that common bond of people taking communion — not necessarily religiously, but centered around food and alcohol.”

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