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This Old Church

Congregations Struggle With How To Finance Fixing Of Sacred Buildings In Disrepair

March 19, 2007
By STEVE GRANT, Courant Staff Writer

One night about four years ago, the vestry of Middletown's Church of the Holy Trinity heard a loud, booming sound during one of its meetings.

At first, the church leaders thought it was thunder, recalled the Rev. Margaret Minnick, rector of the church, which is on the city's Main Street.

It wasn't. It was a piece of ceiling about 4 feet in diameter crashing to a staircase below, just off the church sanctuary.

Unsettling as the incident was, it was nothing out of the ordinary in the world of older, urban congregations, many now enduring the legacy of decades of deferred maintenance.

Shrinking congregations and declining revenues have left some of the grandest and most noteworthy sacred buildings in the U.S. in serious disrepair.

"It is pretty pervasive, what we are seeing, especially in older cities such as New Haven and Hartford," said A. Robert Jaeger, executive director of Partners for Sacred Places, a nonsectarian organization in Philadelphia dedicated to helping congregations find ways to restore and maintain their buildings.

Another reason for the deterioration is that "you have the phenomenon that churches would rather spend money on services to others and sometimes see repairs as spending money on themselves when they could be helping others," said Christopher Wigren, deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, which provides grants for restoration planning work on historic buildings.

Jaeger's group took a look at maintenance needs in a series of Philadelphia churches - analogous to many churches in Connecticut cities, he said - and found the average cost just for badly needed repairs was $1 million to $2 million.

In fact, that is almost precisely what Holy Trinity needs just to finance repairs that will bring its most pressing problems under control, such as replacement gutters to prevent water from pouring over and damaging the church's signature brownstone exterior.

"Certainly, to just stop the damage, stop the problems, probably a million dollars, I would bet," Minnick said. And that is without addressing many other issues including needed renovations, and an elevator that would make parts of the building more accessible and useful.

Holy Trinity once saw about 300 people at Sunday services during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Now, about 150 people total come to two Sunday services. As with many of these churches around the country, the cost of needed repairs is now far beyond the ability of the congregation to finance them.

And because of that, there is a nascent movement to find other ways to help restore these churches, which often are architecturally significant, typically are community landmarks and almost invariably host many social service programs like soup kitchens and drug and alcohol counseling.

Wigren says these churches, representing Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and other faiths, represent the importance of faith groups in shaping society, the services they provide "and just beautiful design."

Holy Trinity is one of 11 Connecticut Episcopal churches that are part of a Partners for Sacred Places program that, through a series of workshops, teaches the congregations how to raise the money both within and outside the church to get the work done. John W. Spaeth III, canon for stewardship and administration with the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, said he expected at least half of the congregations "are going to get some good mileage out of it."

Holy Trinity is a good example of the scale of repairs needed for so many of these landmark buildings. From the street, Holy Trinity remains an impressive building, of course, but a close look reveals just how much work needs to be done.

The woodwork over a door near the sanctuary is rotted, the paint around it peeling. The roof over a side entryway to the church is rotten. All the gutters have fallen down over the years, and the downspouts, all copper, have all been stolen.

Because water now cascades down the building's sides, the brownstone is flaking and falling away. Water pours under a door near the sanctuary, where a towel is kept just inside the door to soak it up.

Parishioners have tackled some of the work already, building a new roof for the bell tower on the church lawn. With donated professional help, the cost was kept to about $12,000, instead of $50,000 or more. But the tower itself still needs expensive repairs. Pigeons get in and leave their droppings; the woodwork is rotting. In fact, the church no longer rings its church bells for fear the vibrations will send parts of the rickety tower crashing to the ground below.

Holy Trinity has made an effort in recent years to attract new members and has seen an increase in families and youth at services. Giving has increased, too. "We're seeing a bit of a Renaissance," Minnick said. Still, financing the full cost of even the emergency repairs is too much for the congregation, she said.

Jaeger said a first step for churches like Holy Trinity is to explain to their communities that the role of the church goes far beyond the congregation itself. Almost all of these churches provide many social services, and a survey undertaken by Jaeger's group documented just how many non-members are using them.

"Fully 80 percent of the people who come through these buildings during the week and who use these programs are not members," Jaeger said. Again, Holy Trinity is a good example.

Minnick said as many as eight programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, use the building throughout the week - some with 150 people attending each session - along with adult education classes and many meetings of community groups, for which the church does not ask payment, though it accepts donations. Holy Trinity is a virtual incubator of social services groups, and has at times, for example, served as a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen for the hungry.

"That is what we try to do, we try to provide space where community groups can get a start, get off the ground and then they can move on and graduate into a larger agency as they grow," Minnick said. An example is an organization that helps people who are HIV positive find employment. The organization used a church office without charge for about six years, and now has its own building in the city.

"The building is used seven days a week by the larger community and one day a week by us, in effect," Minnick said. "To be absolutely honest - and my congregation, some of them would not like it, but the leaders would agree - there is absolutely no reason to put money into this money trap, a big old brownstone building, for a group of people who worship four hours, five hours on a Sunday morning. If you are not putting the money into it for the larger community we ought to sell it and go somewhere else."

But, as Minnick adds, it is a beautiful church with ornate woodwork and stained glass windows. Tearing it down would be hugely expensive, letting it continue to deteriorate is not responsible, and building a new church is not affordable. The answer is to fix it, she says.

Nothing formal has been decided, but the church in all likelihood will launch a fundraising effort to carry out the repair work. It will, as Partners for Sacred Places advises, reach out to the larger community of businesses and people, emphasizing the non-sectarian social service work carried out under the church roof.

"If your congregation is using the building one-fifth of the time, say, and the rest of the community is using it the rest of the time, you've got to hope the larger community appreciates that and will step up and help with the campaign," she said.

Episcopal churches that participated in the Partners for Sacred Places "New Dollars/New Partners program were Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford; Christ Church, Ansonia; Christ Church, Norwich; Church of the Holy Trinity, Middletown; St. James Church, New London; St. John's Church, Waterbury; St. Luke's Church, New Haven; St. Michael's Church, Naugatuck; St. Paul and St. James churches in New Haven; Trinity Church of Branford; and Trinity Church in Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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