Friday, December 15, 2006

Church sales require tact, creativity

For sale: one church, charming, well-maintained, with high ceilings and classic architecture. Enjoy 38,000 square feet of space on a sprawling 14.25-acre lot. Minutes from downtown. Altars, bells, stained glass not included. Asking $4 million.
With attendance declining and a shortage of priests in many areas, Catholic leaders across the state are consolidating parishes and shedding their extra buildings. But selling a house of worship can be complicated for pastors who must placate parishioners angered by the sale and find a buyer who will respect the building’s history.
Parishioners in Pittsburgh were riled in 1996 when the former St. John the Baptist Church became The Church Brew Works, a restaurant that brews beer near the spot where an altar once stood.“The issue wasn’t the beer,” said Ronald P. Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “The issue was that we were told by the parish all sacred items had been removed before the sale. We found out later they had not been removed.”Most churches are sold to other denominations with growing congregations. But in some cases, religious leaders have been forced to turn to the commercial market.
St. Stephen Catholic Church in Milwaukee, built in 1847, sits about a mile from the Milwaukee airport and faces an adult lounge and a parking lot. The Rev. Richard Liska placed a “for sale by owner” sign in front of his brown brick church three years ago. His parish hopes to relocate to a more appropriate setting, but Liska acknowledged the move could be hard for families who have celebrated baptism, wedding and funeral Masses there for generations.
“Part of the reason to relocate is to go to more of a people setting rather than an industrial or commercial setting,” Liska said. “Still, I think parishioners would lament. When something has been a part of your life for a long time, there’s lament.”
The Milwaukee diocese has two of its 216 churches on the market. It has sold eight since 2000. The Madison diocese, with 134 churches, is selling three after the parishes were merged into one, spokesman Brent King said.
There are similar examples all over the country. The Boston archdiocese put 60 churches up for sale in 2004, many of which were converted into condominiums. The North Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church in Marion, Ind., has sold 30 churches in the past 14 years.
Selling can be difficult because buyers are often intimidated by the cost of adapting a church for residential or commercial use, religious leaders said. The buildings also tend to have high heating and cooling costs because of their towering ceilings and large open spaces.

Sales restrictions also can limit the pool of prospective buyers, Liska said.“We would not sell the property to anyone who would be using it for a purpose contrary to the nature, purpose or morality of a church — an abortion clinic, maybe, a gentlemen’s club,” he said.
Church officials typically hire real estate agents or rely on worshippers to spread news of the sale. But one Internet-savvy congregation in central Indiana used eBay last year to sell its church to a Florida man who planned to convert it into a summer home. The 7,000-square-foot church sold for $40,600, delighting Pastor Randy Davis who expected it would fetch only $5,000 to $15,000 because it was in Redkey, a bedroom community of 1,200.Liska has worked with real estate agents, but he’s hoping his “for sale” sign will be as effective as a similar one in front of the former Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay.
Carole Linden, a retired construction worker and occasional artist, spotted that sign as she drove by.“It just seemed like a great piece of property,” she said. “It’s a magnificent piece of construction.”Linden persuaded her son Brian to buy the 3,627-square-foot church for $125,000 in 1995. He turned it into Linden’s Gallery, where he sells imported Asian collectibles.
In Beloit, a group of equally enterprising donors and volunteers bought the former St. Paul’s Catholic Church and converted it into a museum that displays around 8,000 angels.
Brent Williams, the director of finance for the North Indiana Conference, said buyers frequently get a good deal because of limited demand for aging buildings that require considerable renovations.
That might be why the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac recently dropped its asking price for a 4,500-square-foot church from $149,900 to $129,900.“The building itself is 100 years old and while it does have a lot of intangible qualities, it would need some money for upgrading,” spokesman Matthew Payne said.
Liska said he remains hopeful his Milwaukee church will sell, even after sitting on the market for three years.“When you work with the Lord, you never know when he’s going to bring forth a miracle,” he said. Winona Daily News

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