Schools, theaters, cheese-making: Deconsecrated church use varies

| August 6, 2018 | 0 Comments

The former church building of All Saints parish in Lakeville now is home to the Lakeville Area Arts Center. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Pinocchio’s story makes no mention of baptism when he became a real boy, but he’ll take center stage this month in the former sanctuary of All Saints Catholic Church in Lakeville, now the Lakeville Area Arts Center.

Theater productions have been the norm in the space since All Saints parish built and moved to a larger church in 1997, selling its previous church, which the parish had outgrown. As part of the process, the older church, built in 1932, was “deconsecrated,” or decreed no longer a sacred space, making it available for non-sacred uses.

The Lakeville Area Arts Center is among the many Twin Cities organizations using deconsecrated Catholic church buildings. Former Catholic church buildings are also being used for worship by other Christian denominations and religions, as schools and art centers, and at least one is a tourist attraction.

Church buildings become available as parishes close, merge, or build elsewhere to accommodate changing demographics or urban planning. Six churches have been deconsecrated in the archdiocese since 2013.

Susan Mulheron, chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, explained that churches and Catholic cemeteries are set aside for sacred use according to canon 1205 in the Code of Canon Law. The canon states that “sacred places are those which are assigned to divine worship or to the burial of faithful by the dedication or blessing which the liturgical books prescribe for this purpose.” Churches and cemeteries are consecrated in a liturgical rite, marking them as sacred spaces.

When a Catholic church building is longer used by Catholics for sacred use, a bishop must decree that it can be used for “profane” — non-sacred — use, but with the stipulation that it can not be used for “sordid” purposes.

The increasing numbers of deconsecrated churches in Europe, Canada and elsewhere — and questions about their use — has inspired a Nov. 29-30 conference in Rome in the topic. Organized the Pontifical Council for Culture, in partnership with the Italian bishops’ conference and the Pontifical Gregorian University, the conference — “Doesn’t God Dwell Here Anymore? Decommissioning Places of Worship and Integrated Management of Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage” — will invite discussion on the positive uses of deconsecrated churches worldwide. Its organizers have invited the public to participate by submitting Instagram photos by Oct. 15 with the hashtags #NoLongerChurches, #unigre (the Gregorian’s hashtag) and the former church name and city.

Mulheron said that type of conference serves as a means for leadership to discuss ideas rather than make new guidelines. In 2013, the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican provided a circular letter to provide guidance on the issue, including a list of the most preferred to least preferred uses of closed churches: for Mass, for other Catholic organizations, for secular use that keeps “with the dignity of the edifice as a former church,” or demolition.

The document also specifies that churches can’t be used for something “sordid” or directly contrary to the Catholic faith. Mulheron said a former church could never house a Planned Parenthood, for example, because of the organization performs abortions and distributes artificial contraception. The 2013 letter states, “contractual agreements are to be put in place to safeguard this point in civil law as well as canonically.”

Many former Catholic churches remain worship sites for other Christian denominations. When St. Philip in North Minneapolis merged with nearby Ascension in 2001, its former church building became the site of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church. When Holy Redeemer in Maplewood merged with St. Peter in North St. Paul in 2007, its former church became the new home of Twin Cities Bible Church. Likewise, the former church of St. James in St. Paul — which merged with St. Francis de Sales in 2011 — is now Awaken Covenant Community Church.

Deconsecrated churches are also being used by other religions. When St. John on St. Paul’s East Side merged with nearby St. Pascal Baylon in 2013, its former church building became the Darul-Uloom Islamic Center.

Other former churches are not used for worship. Some are schools, such as the former church building of Immaculate Heart of Mary along Summit Avenue in St. Paul, which is now Laura Jeffery Academy, a STEM-focused public charter school. In Minneapolis, the site of the former Visitation church and school is now home to the Stonebridge World School.

Like in Lakeville, the Hastings Arts Center is housed in a former Catholic church, once home to Guardian Angels, a parish that merged with nearby St. Boniface to become St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in 1987, which built a new church.

The decommissioned St. Boniface, meanwhile, was moved and reassembled in 1997 as a historic attraction at the Little Log House Pioneer Village south of Hastings. It also is available as a private wedding chapel.

Mulheron said the St. Boniface situation illustrates the importance of clear distinctions in the deconsecration process. Because the building, which its owners still call “St. Boniface,” is being used for weddings like when it was a Catholic church, it’s at risk of being mistaken for still being a Catholic church. Mulheron noted that the former St. Boniface is not on the list of places approved by the archdiocese for weddings.

When a church is deconsecrated, its sacred objects must be removed, unless its use is being transferred to a church the Catholic Church recognizes to have a valid Eucharist, such as the Orthodox church.

That occurred in the case of St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which purchased the St. Paul campus of St. Andrew Kim earlier this year. The Orthodox church, which celebrates all seven sacraments, was able to keep the church’s tabernacle and the altar.

Local uses for deconsecrated churches appear somewhat pedestrian when compared with examples elsewhere, where former churches have been made into spas, gyms and nightclubs. In Ovideo, Spain, the former Santa Barbara church is now a skatepark with kaleidoscope-like murals. In Charlestown, Massachusetts, a Dollar Tree store operates in the basement crypt of the former St. Catherine of Siena church. In Quebec, the former church of Sainte-Élizabeth-de-Warwick in Quebec is being used for cheese production.

“As for the future here, we will continue as we have been with churches that need to be relegated and sold,” Mulheron said. “We follow the directives from the Congregation for the Clergy, and maybe the conference will give us some ideas, but I don’t foresee any changes to what we do as a result because we follow the law.”

— Catholic News Service contributed to this story

School to demolish former St. Andrew church building

Not all former church buildings transition well for secular use or withstand cultural trends. The board of the Twin Cities German Immersion school in St. Paul, whose campus includes the former St. Andrew church in Como Park,  voted July 30 to tear down its former church building to expand classroom space, despite the protests of preservation-minded neighbors. School leaders cited the expense of upkeep and space inefficiency for its decision.

Community members had been fighting to keep the protect the 1927 building because of its historical significance to the neighborhood. Among them is retired priest Father John Forliti, who grew up attending St. Andrew. “The [Save Historic St. Andrew’s] committee is still very much intent on trying to do what they can, if there is any way, to save the building,” he said.

St. Andrew parish merged with Maternity of Mary in St. Paul in 2012. The school has used the former church and school campus since 2013.

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