Sacrificial Lambs

What will the Catholic Diocese do with all those extra churches?

THE DEMOLITION OF ST. ANDREW doesn't have any special place on the Catholic Church calendar, but in Cleveland, the fall of that building should serve as a warning. A week before Ash Wednesday, a steam shovel tore into the nave of the building that had stood at East 51st and Superior since 1900. (The brick-and-stone carcass had been stripped of its holiness in a decommissioning ceremony, and the sacred objects, like statuary and windows, had been removed.) The bell tower, topped by a bronze cross, still stood against the sky as the boom moved back and forth hypnotically, crashing through the roof, scooping up rubble, dumping it off to the side. You could look straight through the empty openings where stained-glass windows once parsed light into a kaleidoscope of colorful allegories. Clay tiles shattered under the teeth of the steam shovel's jaw. Blond brick walls, dirtied by their century in the city, tumbled in slabs and crumbs. And just like it said on the demolition permit, a shallow arc of water from a hose wet the pile to keep the dust down. A few hours of this, and the one-time house of God was laid to construction waste.

A week before Lent, it was a diocesan sacrifice: the demolition of a parish church for the fiscal stability of others. And as the steam shovel did its dusty job, Catholics in the Cleveland Diocese's eight-county region were waiting to hear which churches and parishes would remain open and which would be closed. Just as the people began the seasonal observance of Jesus Christ's persecution, death and resurrection, they simultaneously awaited the bishop's announcement. The homilies just about wrote themselves.

The parishioners of St. Andrew had decided to close their church before the diocesan downsizing. Northeast Ohio has been hearing about out-migration and declining population and their impact on the city for years. By the time the diocese got around to how all that would affect its operations, it was old hat: They have more buildings than their people need; those buildings are old and expensive to maintain; hundreds of thousands of us have already made the same decision in our own homes, hitting the highways for healthy and wealthy exurbia. Many who were raised Catholic are no longer active parishioners, alienated by the church's slow adaptation to modern realities. In the Catholic diocese's case, it's made a bit more exotic by the shortage of priests.

But closing the doors is a separate issue from proceeding to demolish a piece of the city. Choosing to demolish rather than hang on to a building until it can be sold or a way can be found to re-use it deprives the city of another piece of its physical character, its culture and its history. In St. Andrew's case, the imminent tax burden figured prominently into the decision. Churches are exempt from property taxes until they are no longer used as churches. Then they are added to the county tax roll and must pay at the commercial rate of 2.84 percent. The diocese is eager to cut expenses, and paying taxes on extra church buildings doesn't fit into that plan. For what is surely the region's most culturally significant collection of architecture, that clash of perspectives could be devastating.

The county's head appraiser, Jim Hopkins, says the auditor's office does drive-by "sticks and bricks" appraisals of churches, as it does with other properties, rating them on the type of construction and square footage. Since churches are large and built of expensive materials like brick and stone, they are highly valuable buildings in the auditor's eyes, even if their size and structure make them difficult to sell. St. Andrew was worth $785,000, and the land beneath it $51,000. As soon as it was decommissioned, St. Andrew's building began to cost the diocese $22,308 per year.

Asked if the diocese weighed that annual cost against the odds of selling the property and chose demolition as the most cost-effective option, diocesan spokesman Robert Tayek says it's more complicated than that. "The key issue in the final determination for demolition at St. Andrew was the hefty cost of $750,000 just to bring the building up to a saleable standard," says Tayek, adding that "such an expenditure would have indicated a total disregard for the diocese's responsibilities for good stewardship."

And if the building were still standing, the diocese would be responsible for upkeep and protecting against vandalism. All these costs point toward the likelihood of large-scale architectural loss for the city of Cleveland at the hand of the institution that built all that sacred grandeur. The Lord giveth; the bishop taketh away.

Tayek says the diocese doesn't anticipate many demolitions, but it would be at best optimistic to believe that the same conditions that decided St. Andrew's fate wouldn't apply to many of the 52 parishes to be closed throughout the diocese. Most are in the central city, which means most are big and old; it's hard to find other ways to use them. And for dozens of obsolete churches just like St. Andrew, the tax bill is coming.

How many of the closed churches will remain standing after the June 2010 deadline for closure will be determined by how the diocese, businesses, governments and people respond. What's it worth to us to keep the buildings that give the city so much ethnic, religious and architectural character? And who's got money for that or the creativity to figure out ways to keep the buildings viable? It's easy to think of other historic wreckage to underscore the urgency, and it's not even necessary to talk about ancient civilizations: We know how to shoot ourselves in the architectural foot in Cleveland. As City Councilman Brian Cummins said after a hearing on his proposed landmark-protection legislation, "God forbid that we would ever repeat on any scale what happened on Millionaire's Row. "

ON ASH WEDNESDAY, cross-shaped smudges marked the foreheads of the Catholics who came to the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus to hear Arvo Pärt's Passio, a musical setting of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, played with hypnotic ceremony against a single chord. The Cleveland Museum of Art had chosen the Slavic Village church for the performance in its Viva and Gala Around Town series. Voices soared through the nave, recounting how Pontius Pilate gave the Messiah up to the will of the mob, how they nailed him up and watched him die.

My mother was one of the ash wearers. Since I'm what people have taken to calling a "lapsed" Catholic, I was not. (I think I saw her check my forehead.) A dozen years of Catholic school and church on Sundays didn't make that kind of faith stick on me. I still hold the culture dear, but I don't go to church anymore. During the diocese's downsizing, Bishop Lennon released statistics about out-migration, numbers of Catholics, numbers going to Sunday mass and rates of offertory giving. I am among the 278,000 fewer people attending mass in the diocese now, as compared to the 1970's number.

But the heritage will always be mine. As a kid, I knew where people lived by the name of their parish, not their city. I could tell where a girl went to school by the plaid of her skirt. Like most people raised in the Catholic church, centuries of music, stories, art and architecture resonate within me. I mulled this over as I sat in the pews while Pärt's Passio hung beneath the ceiling above me, and the bishop's decision on church closures loomed.

For some of the same reasons that you can pick up bargain real estate in the city, the same reason the factories stand empty, soon there will be a whole bunch of closed churches. The free-market system that pits city against city has pulled us apart as a society. Our failure to control our development and our eagerness to discard rather than maintain and repair has at least enabled, if not encouraged, us to move farther away from each other, building more buildings as we go. And now the diocese's leadership is following its flock, following the market into exurbia.

When I was growing up in St. Brendan parish in North Olmsted, we worshipped in a shoebox-shaped, cinderblock-walled facility that had been intended as the parish school's gym. They didn't have enough money to build a proper church at the time, so the gym sufficed for a few decades. I was in college when they got the money together to build something, and it came out looking like a pie tin. Just as out-migration and building on the cheap rewarded us with well-built homes in dignified shapes rotting empty in Cleveland — while folks move into homogenous, vinyl and imitation brick domiciles in suburbia — there will be a similar impact on the churches.

Meanwhile, buildings like St. Stanislaus stand at the center of the city's ethnic, economic, architectural and art histories. They are the confluence of all these things. At St. Stan's, the stories of Jesus and the saints are physically manifested in statuary, relief carvings and paintings. The skills of previous generations, motivated by faith, are visible in the vaulted ceiling, in the carved-plaster borders, the leaded and stained-glass windows, in the ornate altars and even in the functional furniture, like the hand-rubbed, red-oak pews. As the information sheet in the pews says, the church was built by Polish craftsmen who emigrated after Newburgh steel mill owner Amasa Stone advertised in Poland for workers. The church building is the physical result of Cleveland's history — economic, ethnic and religious. Renovated in 1998 and busy with activity, St. Stan's is not facing closure.

But among the 30 Cleveland churches that will outright close or leave their buildings behind in mergers, the hardest hit are the other so-called "nationality" parishes where the culture of immigrant groups is kept alive. If the recent fate of St. Andrew is any indication, they all have reason to fear the wrecking ball. The tax man does not celebrate Passover.

PASTOR John Weigand didn't waste any time on March 14, when he told the Lakewood St. James congregation the news at Saturday evening mass. He didn't protest. He didn't urge the congregation to fight by filing an appeal. He didn't lament or second-guess. He simply stated the bishop's decision: St. James, with its marble columns, strikingly painted ceiling and beams, its pointed arches, rose window, stained glass and symmetrical towers would close. Water damage in the Mediterranean-blue ceiling paint streaked down in a few places like tears that had begun falling years ago. A busy childcare program couldn't save it. Neither could capital-campaign pledges targeted at the roof.

In his homily, Pastor Weigand told the congregation that the building was not the church — the people were the church. But it's odd to hear those words spoken from such a resplendent pulpit. For centuries, the Catholic Church has spent its parishioners' money on magnificent buildings and art to fill them. They've used gigantic stone spaces to put a halo around the sound of their music. They've built ceilings several stories tall that can take your breath away when you look up. They've told their stories in paint and glass and in carved altars. Now, in Cleveland and other dioceses around the country faced with the same challenge, they have no choice but to tell their people that they are the church, not the buildings they've paid for and which have inspired them.

But what else can you say? Weigand told the congregation that he is a "party guy," and that for the year the church would remain open before the bishop's June 2010 deadline, St. James would celebrate its history and go out with a bang.

His congregation stood and cheered. A few days later, their appeal of the bishop's decision was underway.

THE NEXT MORNING, Bishop Lennon held a press conference to tell the media where the chips fell. The reconfigured diocese will have 52 fewer parishes. Twenty-nine are outright closures and 41 are involved in mergers, many of which will result in redundant buildings. The real surprise was a set of three West Side landmarks — St. Coleman on West 65th, St. Ignatius of Antioch on Lorain at West Boulevard and St. James in Lakewood, all slated to close by the June 30, 2010, deadline. All three are appealing the bishop's decision, which the bishop acknowledged, adding that if they don't like what they hear in their appeal, they can take the case "all the way to the Holy See."

One reporter at the press conference asked about the decision-making process that resulted in the plan to close St. Ignatius of Antioch.

"We are not going any further on that question, sir," the bishop replied, cutting him off.

The reporter asked him to respond in general terms about landmark churches. The bishop cut him off again. (The parish appeals don't seem to have a much better chance. In several churches slated for closure in Boston — where Lennon oversaw a reconfiguration process four years ago — parishioners at buildings slated to close are still keeping vigil in hopes of changing their fate.)

If Lennon's decisions stand, all that will remain is to dispose of all that property and knit the remains into new parishes. An already challenging task is made more urgent by the ticking time bomb of tax obligation. When St. Adalbert on E. 83rd closes, the full $1.6 million of its appraised value will be added to the tax roll, costing the diocese more than $45,000 in annual taxes. When Corpus Christi on Pearl Road closes, the county will start charging on its $3.3 million value — a tax bill of almost $96,000. The tax bill on the $4.8 million St. Ignatius of Antioch will be almost $138,000. In most of these cases, the building represents 80-95 percent of the bill. The 18 outright closures and seven more buildings made redundant by mergers in the city of Cleveland alone will add roughly $32.7 million to the city's tax base. That translates to a $930,829 annual tax bill to the diocese it never had before — unless that burden can somehow be eliminated.

Demolition, as St. Andrew showed, is one way to eliminate most of it.

Tayek says that, as far as he knows, no one is discussing any kind of continued exemption or period of reprieve for the closed churches. He noted that if a parish is closed but the diocese continues to use the property for charitable work, the exemption could continue.

Some churches will no doubt be sold for adaptive re-use. Cleveland has some experience in this process. Developers here have turned everything from warehouses and printing plants to old public-school buildings and even churches into condominiums. A former Church of Christ Scientist in Lakewood has been converted to offices. The design firm Nottingham Spirk makes its home in a church on top of Cedar Hill. Alenka Banco turned the former St. Josaphat Church on East 33rd into an art gallery, Convivium 33.

In Pittsburgh, there's even a microbrewery and restaurant that makes its home in the decommissioned St. John the Baptist Church. Fermentation tanks now stand where the altar was.

But even if there have been some successes, Cleveland is hard-pressed to find investors for its old buildings. The situation is complicated further by Canon Law provision 1222, which, as Tayek says, "governs the use of a worship site when it is no longer to be used for divine worship." Before any sale, church law requires that the building must be declared for "profane" or ordinary use. "It can never be utilized for 'sordid use,'" something sinful and against church teaching.

Tayek says the bishop is currently evaluating categories that would be appropriate for future use; housing and office space may qualify. He adds, though, that the diocese has "a separate concern" — whether the buyer may quickly flip the property to be converted for "sordid" or inappropriate use. He added that the diocese is carefully researching "restrictive deed" provisions, which could be incorporated in agreements.

As promptly as St. Andrew was demolished, Tayek says the diocese has not and will not establish deadlines that weigh tax obligation or mounting costs against the possible benefits of a sale.

"These matters will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis," he says.

One thing we've learned after decades of rescuing old architecture in Cleveland is that even if the owner is willing to hang on until a buyer comes along, it takes a champion to put such a property back into use.

When Alenka Banco heard that, just around the corner from her gallery in the former St. Josaphat church, the diocese had applied for a demolition permit to raze St. Andrew, she began to make calls to see if anyone would make a fit. She contacted Jeannette Sorrell, founder of the baroque orchestra Apollo's Fire. The ensemble's concerts are presented in churches around the region. Perhaps if one of them came up for sale, the orchestra would have a venue to call home.

"We've had a conversation about having a home venue internally, probably for eight years," says Sorrell. "At one point, a board committee was focused on the idea. It is a huge issue for us."

Sorrell says that at Banco's suggestion, her board of trustees discussed St. Andrew as a possibility, but they never got as far as discussion with the diocese. Taking ownership of a building would be an enormous responsibility and expense. Once, Cleveland had several mid-sized arts organizations that might have made good partners in such a project, but the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, Ohio Ballet, Red{an orchestra} and a few others are long gone.

So Apollo's Fire is keeping an eye on the East Side possibilities but is wary of taking on too much or going it alone. And that is just one small nonprofit's interest. Even if there were people waiting with money and ideas for the dozens of other churches, it's hard to get money from banks these days, and the clock is ticking.

"The tax issue is a very concerning dimension," says Kathleen Crowther, executive director of the Cleveland Restoration Society, an organization that promotes architectural preservation and restoration in the region. Having worked with 62 congregations to provide technical assistance on the maintenance of their historic structures, CRS has developed a relationship with the diocese that has opened the door to consultation on how the churches get re-used.

"We don't advocate for which parishes stay open or closed," says Crowther. "We don't have any standing on that. But we have asked the diocese if we could survey buildings as to their possibilities for adaptive re-use, which they have been very open to. But if the diocese is suddenly holding these incredible landmark properties and incurring the tax on them, I think that would be a serious detriment. I don't see that as a productive way of getting the property into the hands of either another congregation or a developer. And we are going to have such a volume of properties with so much architectural and artistic merit."

But unless someone can do something about that looming financial burden, the future for all those properties doesn't look good. Cleveland is not likely to get any Old Testament-style reprieve, like when God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. Divine intervention is not on the Northeast Ohio horizon. Preserving this history is up to us.

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