This week’s Cleveland Scene has an excellent article on the implications of the Cleveland Diocese’s plan to close 52 parishes. Author Michael Gill fears that many of the churches, once closed, will be demolished to save money.
“Choosing to demolish rather than hang on to a building until it can be sold or a way can be found to re-use it deprives the city of another piece of its physical character, its culture and its history,” he writes. “In St. Andrew’s case, the imminent tax burden figured prominently into the decision. Churches are exempt from property taxes until they are no longer used as churches. Then they are added to the county tax roll and must pay at the commercial rate of 2.84 percent. The diocese is eager to cut expenses, and paying taxes on extra church buildings doesn’t fit into that plan. For what is surely the region’s most culturally significant collection of architecture, that clash of perspectives could be devastating.”
I know I’ve already done a few posts on this issue, so I apologize for beating a dead horse here. For readers who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a pretty big deal in Cleveland: the Diocese is reconfiguring and merging parishes to have 52 fewer by next year. As this story points out, especially hard-hit are a number of “nationality” churches (such as Hungarian), and several landmark buildings.
What about the “it’s only a building argument”?
Gill writes, “[B]uildings like St. Stanislaus stand at the center of the city’s ethnic, economic, architectural and art histories. They are the confluence of all these things. At St. Stan’s, the stories of Jesus and the saints are physically manifested in statuary, relief carvings and paintings. The skills of previous generations, motivated by faith, are visible in the vaulted ceiling, in the carved-plaster borders, the leaded and stained-glass windows, in the ornate altars and even in the functional furniture, like the hand-rubbed, red-oak pews. As the information sheet in the pews says, the church was built by Polish craftsmen who emigrated after Newburgh steel mill owner Amasa Stone advertised in Poland for workers. The church building is the physical result of Cleveland’s history — economic, ethnic and religious. Renovated in 1998 and busy with activity, St. Stan’s is not facing closure.” (emphasis mine)
As the story points out, it is possible to find wonderful, creative reuses for old church buildings. I’m familiar with several in Pittsburgh: the Church Brew Works (a microbrewry and restaurant), Altar Bar, and Mr. Small’s Theatre. What other examples am I leaving out?
We’ll see what happens, but Gill believes the outlook isn’t good:
“Cleveland is not likely to get any Old Testament-style reprieve, like when God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. Divine intervention is not on the Northeast Ohio horizon. Preserving this history is up to us.”