Parishioners fight to prevent church from becoming vacant

Apr 25, 2011

The church service starts just like any other.

Congregants gather with hymnals in hand, shuffling on their feet, waiting for some direction.  Then the song leader calls out the gathering song: number 201, "Praise to the Lord."  The crowd joins in.

But there's one very unusual thing about this scene.

There's no choir here, and there's no organ.  

That's because, on this cold winter morning, we're standing outside of St. Mary's church in Jamesville, N.Y.  Parishioners are barred from entering the building, which was locked by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse a few years ago, after attendance declined.

But the devote at St. Mary's have lot invested in their church, and they don't want it to sit vacant, like so many others in the Rust Belt. They argue that their community is robust enough to keep the church open.

So every Sunday, since the doors were locked, they've kept vigil outside - singing, praying, and waiting.

"That next step"

It's a traumatic situation, according to Le Moyne College's Matt Loveland, who has studied how church closures affect communities.

"When these parishes close, and ... take that next step, if these buildings are turned into something else, there's a significant number of people who feel like something significant from their own life story is being taken from them."

A closure notice from the Diocese or other governing body isn't necessarily a death sentence for a church though.  At least not for the building.

In Syracuse, a former synagogue is coming online as a hotel.  Another former Catholic church is being converted into a stained glass studio.

Loveland says he's seen even more creative uses in other Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh.  

"Several ... have been turned into recording studios, because they have good acoustics," he says. "I've been to a rock concert at an old Catholic church."

Loveland's even seen an old church turned into a brew pub.

That does not sit well with Father James Lang.

"I think those are absolutely inappropriate uses," he says.

Lang is a spokesperson with the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse.

"When we are selling a church, we have built in our process a statement that the building will not be used in any untoward fashion," he says. "Meaning, it can't be used as a bar."

Lang says the Diocese's preference is to find a way to allow the building to be used for its original intent: giving glory to God.

"The best single use for a building we're no longer using as a parish is to find another church to use it," he says.

Fighting back

But if another congregation can't be found, typically an old church will sit vacant or get sold. Lang says the Diocese never starts out to close a church, but that closures happen when congregations merge to pool resources.

In the case of St. Mary's, former parishioners argue that the shuttering by the Diocese violated a process for closure set out by the Vatican. So the group of devotees are fighting the decision, and taking their cause to a higher authority.

In an unusual move, the Vatican's Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal on behalf of the parishioners.  That's slated to happen later this spring.