This Old Church Straps On Its Tool Belt

Many congregations seek creative ways to cover costs of bringing 19th-century houses of worship into conformity with building codes for 21st century

After a windstorm, members of Dorchester Temple Baptist Church in Boston scurry around the lawn picking up roof shingles. After heavy rains, parishioners gather in the basement to pump out the inch of water that covers the linoleum.

When the damage gets this bad, some churches simply call for the wrecking ball. But the parishioners of this 110-year-old, wood-shingle church have decided to dig into their pockets, roll up their sleeves, and start rebuilding. And they are not afraid to ask for help.

"It's going to require grants, a capital campaign, and a lot of prayer," says the Rev. Craig McMullen, co-pastor of the church, who estimates the project's final cost could reach $1 million. "But we can't wait for the building to reflect the beauty of its people, and we know it will, God willing."

Across the country, tens of thousands of churches and synagogues face a similar problem: how to bring 18th- and 19th-century buildings up to 21st-century safety codes. For many houses of worship, it would take a lifetime of collection plates to install fire sprinklers and wheelchair ramps, remove asbestos insulation, and replace electrical, heating, and plumbing systems.

"It's clear that the enormous need for renovation is facing congregations of all persuasions," says Robert Jaeger, executive director of Partners for Sacred Spaces, a national church restoration group based in Philadelphia. "In Philadelphia alone, there are 800 to 1,000 church buildings in need of major repairs."

Anchors of stability

The disrepair of America's churches is rousing a growing chorus of officials and citizens who say these venerable buildings are worth saving. Some churches are architectural gems in their own right, but even those of more pedestrian design often represent an important link between a community's past and its present. This historical value, added to their role as social-service provider, makes the church an anchor of stability in a city's ever-changing landscape.

"Most of us walk by a grand old church and look up at the spires and admire the beauty," Mr. Jaeger says. "But behind the walls, there may be a day-care center, or a public concert, or a homeless shelter that serves local needs."

Keeping churches upright can be difficult, however, especially in the inner-city. During the past 30 years, vast numbers of urban parishioners have retreated to the suburbs, leaving many pastors with the unsavory decision to close.

'A modern-day miracle'

For the Nativity Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, closing seemed inevitable. By 1991, the membership had shriveled to 20. The church itself, a Gothic stone structure that dates to 1898, required tens of thousands of dollars' worth of repairs. Consultants suggested demolition.

But leaders of the Acts Assembly of God Church had other plans. With $50,000 in donations and $80,000 in loans, they bought the church and got to work. They replaced the roof, installed new heating and plumbing systems, and began the long process of conserving the stained-glass windows.

"We had faith that God would give the building to us, and we have the settlement sheet to prove it," says the Rev. Martin Cottman, who shares the church's pastorship with his wife, the Rev. Jacqueline Cottman. "It's a modern-day miracle - and God gets the glory."

Even with divine guidance, however, keeping a church running is hard work. Unlike other nonprofit groups, churches have difficulty qualifying for grants from private foundations, which are often reluctant to support religiously based activities.

With the average renovation project costing about $70,000 to $100,000, church leaders are being forced to find more creative ways to pay for the nuts and bolts.

In Philadelphia, for instance, three separate congregations each were faced with $1 million in renovation bills. So they teamed up and applied for grants as a single entity, asking the foundation to support the social services they collectively provided to the community. The strategy worked, to the tune of $500,000 so far.

"Any religious body has to turn to its own congregation to keep its buildings in order," says Stanley Smith, head of the Steeple Project for Historic Boston Inc., a preservation group. "But a really good entrepreneurial church will shake every money tree there is. And you don't get money without asking."

Sometimes churches can rely on the kindness of strangers. In 1991, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City received a $500,000 check for its renovation project from a Mormon businessman.

"He was deeply concerned about retaining the architectural heritage of the city," recalls the Rev. M. Francis Mannion, rector of the cathedral who oversaw the two-year, $10 million renovation project. "There had been no significant work on the church in over 60 years."

This week, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, kicked off a major new renovation project of its own. Nine buildings at its world headquarters - two church edifices, the church's publishing house, administration building, Sunday School, broadcast building, and three homes of church founder Mary Baker Eddy - will be revamped over the next five years, at a cost of $55.4 million. The plan is an expansion of a church restoration project that has been under way for six years. Church officials say they plan to rely on membership worldwide to raise the funds to pay for the renovations.

"Fixing the buildings is not just a comfortable end in itself," says John Selover, a member of the church's Board of Directors. "There are legal requirements to be met and safety and infrastructure needs that can't be avoided."

Where to begin?

Nearby in Boston's South End, the Holy Cross Cathedral is trying to decide what buildings to fix first. The tile flooring in one chapel has given way. The stained-glass windows in another chapel require re-leading. And the church's grammar school hasn't been touched in 85 years.

"We've spent $1.5 million so far, and that's just a prelude," says the Rev. Frederick Murphy, rector at the cathedral. "We haven't even gotten to the main church yet. We're at a point where we're just waiting for the wealthy people to come forward with donations."

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