Churches Born Again

When Vince Brust started searching for a new home for his dance studio a decade ago, he told his real estate agent he needed a big empty space.

“Like a factory,” he remembers saying.

What he found was something far more divine.

There’s no mistaking Vince Brust Studios in Throop for what it once was. From the steeple to the stained-glass windows to the relief of the Virgin Mary above the front door, the building at 600 Dunmore St. still looks like the church that served the St. Mary’s Magyar parish for more than a century.

As the Diocese of Scranton and other religious organizations respond to shrinking congregations by shutting under-attended churches, it’s a buyer’s market for former houses of worship.

The number of churches in the Northeast decreased by about 6 percent from 1990 to 2000, the most recent figures available from the Nashville-based Glenmary Research Center. The Catholic research organization has been producing a religious census every 10 years since 1970.

But real estate professionals and others say finding a new owner or new use for a closed church can be a long, often frustrating endeavor, with pitfalls running the gamut from architectural challenges to neighborhood sensibilities.

“It’s not easy to sell these properties,” said William Genello, spokesman for the Diocese of Scranton. “In most cases, people are not lining up to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars for an empty church.”

In North Scranton, the Holy Rosary parish community sold the former St. Stanislaus Church property on Oak Street in January after 18 months of trying.

The new owner, a New Jersey-based Hindu organization, plans to use the building as a worship center. It bought the church for $170,000, which is $105,000 less than the original asking price.

“We didn’t get what we had hoped to get, but I suppose you never do,” Holy Rosary’s pastor, the Rev. Cyril Edwards, said. “At least it will continue to be a house of worship, although we are disappointed it won’t be in the Catholic tradition.”

Holy Rosary is still looking for a buyer for a second church, St. Stephen’s at West Pass Avenue and Theodore Street.

John Cognetti, president of Hinerfeld Commercial Real Estate, who brokered the St. Stanislaus sale with agent Mike Detter, said churches by their nature are usually not conducive to another use.

They are specialized structures built for a specific purpose, usually come with little land or parking, and often are plopped in the middle of residential neighborhoods, reflective of an era when most worshippers lived nearby and walked to services.

“It’s probably the most difficult building to find another use for,” Mr. Cognetti said.

Anne McCloskey said she and her husband, Jim McClymer, didn’t have a lot of money when they started looking for a home in 1983. Although the South Scranton native had noticed the “For Sale” sign on the former Blucher Avenue Baptist Church on East Mountain, it didn’t register immediately.

Then, as she lay awake one night and mulled her options, she was suddenly hit with a revelation.

“I thought, ‘That’s a good building in a good neighborhood. Why couldn’t I make it my home?’” Ms. McCloskey, 64, said.

She and her husband bought the closed church, which was built in 1931, for $13,500. About six months later, lightning struck the building — “Maybe it was appropriate. I was a Catholic living in a Baptist church,” she joked. But there were no second thoughts.

Over the past 24 years, the couple have put about $80,000 into renovations, not counting hundreds of hours of sweat equity.

“It was like making a coat out of an old blanket,” Ms. McCloskey said. “You just have to put in the seams.”

The congregation of John Raymond Memorial Church, Universalist, had shrunk to about 10 members by the time the University of Scranton bought the building at Madison Avenue and Vine Street for $125,000 in 1987.

The 101-year-old structure now houses the Michael W.J. Smurfit Arts Center, with a studio for the university’s fine arts program on the main floor and the offices of the university press in the basement.

It was one of three former churches the university acquired in the 1980s. The Grace Reformed Episcopalian Church, 419 Monroe Ave., became Joseph A. Rock Hall and is home to the Madonna della Strada Chapel. The former Immanuel Baptist Church, 342 Jefferson Ave., is the university’s Houlihan-McLean Center for the performing arts.

While there are exceptions, Scranton architect Joseph H. Young said when you look at churches that have made the transition into something else, “You’re not working with a very big palette of successful changes.”

Most churches have a large nave — the auditorium area where the congregation gathers for worship — that is probably the largest single obstacle to adaptive reuse, he said. If the floor is sloped, the building might work as a theater, he said, but then you run into the problem of parking.

“People have these great ideas and say, ‘This would be a beautiful restaurant or we can put apartments in here,’” Mr. Young said. “But you start to plan the thing, and it gets real hard to do. … The cost is a big thing, the cost of making those changes.”

Another factor is zoning, Mr. Cognetti said. In the case of St. Stanislaus, one potential buyer wanted to convert the building into apartments, a use opposed by neighbors.

“The neighborhood steadfastly refused to consider that alternative, and it was turned down by the zoning board,” Mr. Cognetti said.

Robert Fiebus, an agent with ERA One Source Realty, said the ideal solution is to find a new or growing congregation that needs a home and that has the financial wherewithal both to buy and to maintain an old church. The dilemma is there are more old churches than there are new congregations to fill them.

“It could be one in 1,000 clients or one in 500 clients who comes along looking for a church,” he said.

Mr. Brust, 54, who bought the former St. Mary’s Magyar nine years ago for less than $100,000, said he has never regretted his decision.

He uses the former first-floor nave and the former church hall in the basement for ballroom, swing and Latin dance instruction. The choir loft has been converted into an office.

In addition to charming aesthetic touches like the stained glass windows, he said, the building still maintains a spiritual quality.

“It’s a happy building. Nothing bad ever happened here,” he said. “That makes people comfortable.”

- Courtesy of The Times-Tribune

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