David Smith is gearing up for some tough choices over the next couple of years - about 70 in all. That's because as chancellor of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, Mr. Smith will soon oversee the largest sell-off of church real estate in American history, as the downsizing diocese puts as many as 70 local parish buildings on the block. Because these properties have become much more than bricks and mortar to longtime members, assessing an offer's reasonableness marks only the start of the seller's dilemmas.
"Value in our case is not only money. It's also reuse," Mr. Smith says. "We're not going to sell necessarily to the highest bidder."
As Boston Catholics weigh what's to come in the afterlife of their holy buildings, they face a subtle struggle that's hardly unique to their situation.
Those who have owned anything from a family homestead to a humble Protestant meetinghouse can probably relate to the notion that certain buildings acquire a type of sacredness with time - and that means certain reuses after a sale would rise to the level of desecration.
When time comes to sell, owners of symbolic real estate confront a classic tradeoff. To impose restrictions would be to cut into profits that could fund the next meaningful enterprise.
But to sell without restrictions, or without regard for a buyer's intentions, one would run the risk of transforming a home or church building into something that mocks or erases all that the beloved site once represented.
So sensitive is the territory that even the most respectable of reuses can stir up hard feelings.
For instance, some years ago in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a Baptist congregation outgrew its building and sold it to buy a new one. But those who remember worshiping inside still haven't accepted that someone turned their church into a private home, according to Lindsay Jones, a religious architecture scholar at Ohio State University.
"People stop him and tell him how they got married in his living room," says Mr. Jones. "They find it irksome. It's intrinsically tied to its original function, so [to them] he's exploiting it in a way."
To head off bitter feelings, and perhaps even find a well-appreciated reuse, some sellers are investigating the intentions of prospective buyers and establishing social criteria to guide their decisionmaking. In the parlance of Roman Catholic canon law, the former church building returns to a use that is "profane but not sordid."
And in sorting out that distinction, in Catholicism and elsewhere, sellers seem to struggle to express something about who they are at the core.
As an active Methodist layman for 60 years, Charlie Johnson of Port Charlotte, Fla., has taken part in a number of church building sales. Yet even when the people are moving on to something bigger and better, he always urges the congregation to be careful about the buyer.
"I would never want to see a house of worship turned into a bar, a saloon, or even a grocery store that sells alcohol," says Mr. Johnson. "It'd be denigrating the church."
In Maine, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland refuses to sell a building to any buyer who might turn the property into either an abortion clinic or a pornography business. Either use would egregiously violate values the church has always represented, according to finance officer David Toomey.
Instead, the diocese aims when possible to extend a building's potential as a force for good into the future. Example: rather than take top dollar for St. Dominic's church and school in Portland's pricey West End, the church sold it to the City of Portland in the mid-1990s for just $50,000.
The reason: The city proposed to make the site into a mix of housing and an Irish-American heritage center.
"When we're selling buildings, we're weighing what does the most good," says Mr. Toomey. "We try to steer toward a use that is appropriate, acceptable to the [wider] community, and ideally would benefit the church community, in some way."
In Boston, a $10 million deficit in the current fiscal year has complicated dilemmas further. The archdiocese will reject "blasphemous" proposals, says Smith, as well as unrealistic designs, which he fears might serve to cloak a buyer's true plans.
But tough money problems mean the archdiocese can't be quite as choosy as its neighbors to the north in Maine.
"Would I rather see housing than a supermarket? Yes," says Smith, noting the housing shortage in the Boston area. "But if I'd only be getting a limited amount of housing, and I could get three times the money for a supermarket, then that [supermarket] might be the way to go."
Not all property sellers anguish over subsequent uses. Most commercial buildings, for instance, sell with zero regard for how appropriately the second use might complement the first. As long as the zoning works and the price is right, the buyer's plans for the space as a rule matter not a whit.
But churches, and private homes in some cases, tell a different story. With them, people often connect so intimately as to feel the buildings have come to represent their very identities as persons, according to Peter Williams, professor of comparative religions and American studies at Miami University (Ohio).
So in deciding what they will and will not accept as a subsequent use, people seem to declare what they stand for - and how they want to be remembered.
"This is how you tell someone who you are. Especially in ethnic communities, you say, 'I'm a member of such-and-such a parish,' " says Professor Williams. "You are no longer who you used to be in some sense if your church moves."