Restoring churches, & faith

Posted: January 12, 2012

THE REV. VINCENT SMITH was looking at the sky through one of the two gaping holes in the roof of Point Breeze's 19th Street Baptist Church and wondering when he could bring his congregation home.

For the past five years, his 100 parishioners have worshipped in an adjoining building, forced to leave their sanctuary - designed by acclaimed architect Frank Furness and built in 1875 - because of the roof and other structural problems.

"It can be a little discouraging to some. They remember this church in its glory days and they say, 'I'm not going there no more,' " Smith said.

"We are rebuilding the physical building and we're going to rebuild the ministry here, because this church was planted here in this community for a purpose."

Across the city, religious properties like 19th Street Baptist Church are in jeopardy. Shrinking congregations, a struggling economy and aging structures mean less money and more problems for congregations.

"These places are centers of community life, real anchors to their neighborhoods," said Tuomi Forrest, executive vice-president of the Philly-based nonprofit Partners for Sacred Places. "They're cultural and historic landmarks. Sometimes the finest buildings in a neighborhood, indeed a city, are the houses of worship."

Of the more than 750 historic, religious properties in the city, about a quarter of those are estimated to be endangered and could face closure in the next decade, according to Partners for Sacred Places. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia estimates that about 50 of those structures are vacant or for sale.

In recent years, some former religious properties have been destroyed, like Metropolitan AME Church, which stood on 20th Street near Fitzwater until it was torn down last summer. Others have been converted to offices, condominiums or private homes.

"If you lose them, you lose the story of what makes Philadelphia a unique place in this country," Forrest said.

Some of the congregations, like 19th Street Baptist, near Wharton, are struggling to maintain their structures as they battle leaking roofs, falling stone and buckling windows.

Others, like Center City's First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, have solid structures that are more than 100 years old. But shrinking resources have made it difficult for them to stay afloat. In the past few years, First Baptist had considered selling its 45,000-square-foot building at 17th and Sansom streets, said the Rev. Pete Wool, who has helmed the church for the past two years. The structure was sound, but the congregation had shrunk from a high of more than 1,000 members to about 80.

"They spent all their money on just maintaining the building," Wool said.

It was time to diversify. First Baptist partnered with Liberty Church, a 250-strong congregation out of the Reform Church of America. The two religious groups now share the building and have even held services together.

Then, with help from Partners for Sacred Places, First Baptist opened its doors to two local theater groups that were looking for places to perform. The groups now rent space in the church.

"Now we don't have to spend every penny on paying the gas bill or electric bill, and we can do what God calls us to do," Wool said.

Those bills can be substantial. At 207-year-old Kensington United Methodist Church, better known as Old Brick, heating can run more than $1,000 a month. That's just not feasible for a congregation of 40 people, 12 of whom come consistently.

"It's a lot of upkeep for us," said the Rev. Jessica Ross, who has been with the Fishtown church for four years.

Instead, the congregation meets in a small back room, leaving the church's two large worship spaces empty. Selling part of the building is a consideration, Ross said.

"It's devastating because this is your home," she said. Then she added, "The church is the congregation, not a pile of bricks."

Partners for Sacred Places did a pilot study on the economic impact of houses of worship, focusing on 12 city congregations. The study found that each congregation brought an average of $4 million annually into a neighborhood.

"They're magnets for attracting people and money. It's a hidden source of tourism," Forrest said. "They buy goods and services that stay in the local community. They employ local people. People come into the city to worship, then spend money on parking and restaurants. A lot of them hold weddings and baptisms and bar mitzvahs."

Staci Schwartz, past president of Society Hill Synagogue, at 4th and Spruce streets, said that just when the synagogue was planning to purchase a neighboring building, it found its 180-year-old windows were leaking.

"It's definitely a blessing because you have this historic structure. It's beautiful and you get a lot of architectural details that aren't present today," Schwartz said. "I won't say it's a curse, because it's never a curse, but it definitely has its challenges."

The 300-family-strong synagogue launched a capital campaign with help from Partners for Sacred Places and eventually raised the money to buy the building and do the repairs.

"The experience has brought us closer as a community," she said.

The Rev. Robin Hynicka of Arch Street United Methodist, said his building's central location at Broad and Arch streets draws locals and tourists alike.

In fact, one recent visitor to the city so loved the church that he sent a $75,000 check to the church's capital fund, which funded fixing items like the church's large stained-glass window.

"We were a couple of major vibrations away from that thing falling out on Arch Street," Hynicka said. "It was alarming."

Melissa Jest, neighborhood coordinator for the Preservation Alliance, is working closely with 19th Street Baptist Church as it struggles to rebuild.

"I don't use the word 'restore,' " she said. "You want to repair and rehabilitate."

For a while, things seemed to be looking up for the church. A company donated a chain-link fence to enclose the church. Small grants were secured for some of the work. With hard work, it seemed the congregation would be back in its sanctuary in five years.

But last Saturday morning, Smith and two deacons, ages 70 and 73, arrived at the church ready to work on the roof. They were determined to get the framing done before winter's first snow further damaged the structure.

Then they realized someone had broken into the building and stolen all the copper piping, cutting off water to the adjoining building where the church holds Sunday services. Instead of working on the roof, they would spend the day repairing the plumbing.

Smith assessed the damage and prepared for a run to the hardware store.

"We're going to make the best of it," Smith said. "The God I serve has a tendency to tear things down before he builds them up."

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