WHOSE responsibility is it to save churches, particularly those that have historical and architectural significance? Factors such as declining endowments and congregations, deferred maintenance, changing neighborhoods, and increasing costs for energy and structural repairs have produced economic hardship for many congregations. Some have been forced to close their doors and give up their buildings.
In our rapidly changing and mobile society, maintaining and preserving church edifices has become ever more difficult, and church officials and congregations are increasingly recognizing their need for more specific information and guidance on proper ways to conserve their structures.
``That,'' says Holly Fiala, assistant director of the Midwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Chicago, ``leaves people - those of all faiths who value history and architecture - to lead the rescue effort and provide the necessary help.''
Some religious properties have survived, she says, because they have been given new alternative uses. Many have been converted into community centers, office complexes, cultural facilities, theaters, restaurants, and residences. Others, through ill-advised repairs, have been slowly dismembered, with removal of towers, stained glass, and other ornamental features. Many congregations have too few resources to allot to preventive maintenance or restoration, and unchecked deterioration inevitably takes its toll. Then, too, theft and vandalism plague both urban and rural churches.
What began as a trickle of active concern in the 1970s has accelerated into numerous assistance programs, seminars, workshops, and regional and national conferences, including the one now in session in Detroit titled ``Sacred Trusts II, Money, Materials & Management for Historic Religious Buildings.'' Similar conferences are being held this year in cities such as Providence, R.I.; St. Paul, Minn.; Cleveland; and Lubbock, Texas. Others, giving momentum to the growing church preservation movement, are in the planning stages for 1990.
Since 1971, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., has awarded grants and loans to preserve historic religious buildings through two of its financial-assistance programs, the National Preservation Loan Fund and the Preservation Services Fund. Grants have ranged from funding a restoration plan for an 1852 adobe-style Roman Catholic Church in Albuquerque, N.M., to developing a strategy to reuse a Jewish synagogue in Denver as a performing-arts center.
In Philadelphia, a new organization called Partners for Sacred Places is dedicated to the sound stewardship and preservation of religious properties. This center hopes to forge a partnership among clergy, lay people, preservation professionals, and community development leaders for the purpose of finding solutions to issues of long-term care and management of religious properties.
``Partners'' grew out of a national task force created by concerned religious, philanthropic, and preservation leaders in 1987. It will be co-directed by A. Robert Jaeger, who has been active in the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation, and Diane Cohen, who worked seven years on the religious properties program of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Both helped develop technical assistance programs for owners of religious property in their cities.
They can now answer inquiries, and by fall the organization, at One East Penn Square, Suite 2300, Philadelphia, PA 19107, will be ready to serve as a national clearinghouse to disseminate information on subjects ranging from fund raising to building repair and maintenance. It will also be prepared to offer technical assistance by cosponsoring conferences, creating a traveling workshop series, and consulting with organizations interested in establishing technical and financial assistance programs.
``Partners'' plans to establish continuing-education programs with seminaries to aid clergy and lay leaders in property management and work with denominational offices to make plans for long-term care of historic properties. It is also developing an educational campaign to take its message to the public, work with foundation and corporate leaders to broaden traditional giving policies, and work with elected officials and government agencies to develop new grant and loan programs at local, state, and federal levels.
The Rev. Thomas F. Pike, rector of Calvary/St. George's Episcopal Church in Manhattan, the organization's first chairman, declared recently, ``One of the greatest challenges we face is raising awareness of the importance of religious buildings in our communities. Unless we can increase the resources available to provide for the care of these properties, America faces an immeasurable loss. But the task of preserving these extraordinary resources must be shared by those beyond the religious community.''
``Partners,'' which will eventually be linked to church-saving groups in other countries, is being supported initially by grants from the Lilly Endowment Inc. of Indianapolis, the J.M. Kaplan Fund of New York, and the Weyerhaeuser Family Foundation Inc. of St. Paul, Minn. It is expecting additional foundation funding and corporate support.
Mr. Jaeger of ``Partners'' says, ``We felt there was an absence of an advocate on the national level that could provide assistance to both congregations and denominational organizations as well as people in the preservation community. We also feel sure there is a lot of expertise in the preservation and community development fields that can be tapped by churches. Clergy we have found are almost universally poorly prepared for managing the substantial real estate entrusted to them, and church `house committees' often have changing memberships with limited knowledge of property management and critical maintenance procedures.'' Creative leadership on such issues is, however, becoming more apparent.
In Santa Fe, the New Mexico Community Foundation, with a grant from the National Trust, has developed a program to preserve the adobe churches of that state by training local residents in proper preservation techniques. Community members have been proud to donate their labor, using age-old building skills to help restore many rural adobe churches.
Faced with the formidable task of repairing a large elaborate Victorian building, the congregation of Calvary Methodist Church in Pittsburgh formed a nonprofit group to coordinate restoration efforts. Support will be raised by soliciting denominational and corporate donations, sponsoring a series of cultural events in the church, and capitalizing on the building's historical significance as a potential tourist attraction.
Historic Boston Inc. is involved in a feasibility study to determine the best way to preserve Vilna Schul, the only surviving intact example of the kind of synagogue built in Boston around 1920. Historic Boston Inc. will probably raise enough money to buy it from the receiver, then create a nonprofit organization to own and operate it as a Jewish cultural center-cum-museum on Beacon Hill.