Our Lady of Grace was once a vibrant community center in the small borough of Somerdale, County of Camden.
The imposing red-brick Catholic church held weekly masses and hosted baptisms, weddings and funerals as the great organ blared from its balcony.
But over time church attendance dwindled and the parish was consolidated into another nearby. Our Lady of Grace has stood empty for years on a stretch of White Horse Pike near a Wawa and a rental car agency.
Now the church and its neighboring buildings are ready for their next act.
Our Lady of Grace will soon become Reserve at Grace — a restaurant, community center and 84 apartments, including some for seniors. The first phase, including age-restricted units, is expected to be completed this year.
“One of the things that creates a lot of flexibility is the fact that you’re turning a tax-exempt property into a taxable entity,” said Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante. “So it’s sort of a win-win for everybody.”
As Catholic schools continue to see enrollment decline and parishes are consolidated or closed, a growing number of New Jersey communities are facing complex questions about what to do with aging church buildings.
In 1971, there were more than 600 Catholic schools in New Jersey, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Last year there were just under 200 Catholic schools. Parishes, presbyteries, convents and other Catholic institutions also suffered significant declines, resulting in consolidations and vacant buildings.
Dioceses sometimes sell or lease properties that are no longer needed “in a way that best serves the mission of this religious community,” said Rayanne Bennett, spokesperson for the Diocese of Trenton, one of five Catholic dioceses. from New Jersey.
“This may mean that some properties are sold and the resulting revenue is dedicated to parish or school needs, or other initiatives,” she said. “There is consideration to find a buyer or tenant who will benefit the community as a whole, and often the property is leased to another non-profit organization.”
In the case of Our Lady of Grace, the church was closed for almost a decade when Passanante, the mayor of Somerdale, came up with the idea of converting it into a mixed-use development.
In 2018, the township purchased the 2.5-acre complex, including the church, school, rectory and gymnasium, for $1.2 million. He then immediately sold the property – excluding the church – to a developer.
Passanante was prompted to come up with a plan for the vacant property by the extinguishing of a nearby church.
After sitting vacant for several years, St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in Magnolia was demolished in 2016 and turned into a Royal Farms convenience store.
The mayor said he didn’t want that to happen in Somerdale. The transformation of the former Church of Our Lady of Grace into a reserve at Grace will save the building and collect tax revenue. The solution has the support of both the township and Catholic leaders, he said.
For some vacant properties, converting old churches and religious buildings into affordable housing is an ideal solution – merging community needs with part of the church’s mission. Others are creatively turned into restaurants and convenience stores, while still others are touted as potential public health sites.
The Township of North Bergen recently purchased an 82-year-old church hall that once belonged to St. Rocco’s Catholic Church across the street.
No final decision has been made on its use, but it is likely to be used as a public health site, said township spokesman Phil Swibinski. The site’s prime location – adjacent to City Hall – “makes it a natural choice for municipal government purposes,” he said.
In Jersey City, St. Bridget’s Retirement Residence opened in July 2014, after consolidating several parishes.
St. Bridget’s Parsonage, Convent and School, consisting of two three-story buildings and one five-story building, was converted into a seniors’ residence with 43 affordable housing units. Some apartments have been specifically reserved for people with disabilities or elderly people in poor health.
Years later, St. Bridget’s Church was also sold for conversion into apartments.
Christopher Garlin, a managing member of the RCG Development Group, one of two companies that developed St. Bridget’s seniors’ residence, said he was approached by a pastor who said the campus was underutilized and could be turned into affordable housing.
This type of scenario “gives the church the opportunity to deal with, obviously, the economic challenges it faces, which is one of the reasons it is looking to divest these properties or lease these properties. But, it’s also an opportunity to address a very pressing social need,” Garlin said.
Vacant religious properties are often found in urban communities where the church has contracted the most, Garlin added.
In the past, neighborhoods may have been filled with large families who sent several children to Catholic schools. But as these families age and move out — and the area gentrifies — adding more housing may be a priority, said David Murphy, director of the Church Properties Initiative program at the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate in Washington. University of Notre Dame.
“I think the beauty of the church is that it’s so local and so particular to its community,” he said.
Murphy oversaw a 2021 report that found that converting underutilized properties into housing, community centers or other spaces can further the mission of the church, while sometimes generating revenue. But whatever the property becomes, it should reflect a community need, Murphy said.
“I think if you’re still serving the community in some capacity, that’s what the church is there for, whether the church is still open or not,” he added.
Converting church buildings comes with challenges. The churches themselves have large open sanctuaries and were “built for a particular purpose, which was a mass,” Murphy said. This makes it more difficult to repurpose the building.
Churches were usually built decades ago and may have issues with asbestos and lead paint. This often leads to costly renovations.
But buildings are also often located in central locations, considered social and community centers in the past. Parsonages and religious schools are easier to redevelop and lack many of the sacred or cultural complications that come with converting churches that were once centers of worship, Murphy added.
However, not all church building conversion plans are successful.
In Asbury Park, a developer was rebuffed by the township when he tried to buy Holy Spirit Catholic Church, said Elisabeth Wendel, the listing’s real estate agent. The deal has not yet been concluded.
Other churches wanted the property but couldn’t afford the $2.75 million listing price, she said.
The developer, Mountain View Developments, has proposed several plans, including housing. The township has so far rejected proposals to develop the Holy Spirit Church property.
In other cities, Catholic churches on the Register of Historic Places may face additional challenges once they are no longer needed, said Matthew Manion, faculty director at the Villanova University Center for Church Management.
Church leaders should continually reassess their properties, in light of changing demographic and attendance trends, and make tough decisions that best benefit the church, he said. However, the desire to keep the buildings is understandable.
Manion said he once heard a bishop say, “For the past 100 years in the United States, unfortunately, the Catholic Church has done a better job of building buildings than building disciples of Jesus.”
Church leaders recognize that “we need to focus on discipleship and if our buildings help us do that, great,” he added. “But if they don’t, the mission is to train disciples.”
Ongoing development on former Catholic Church property
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