Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation

Preserving Churches for Community Service

 by Christopher Wigren

With their soaring spires, carved tracery, columned porticoes, stained glass or clear windows, historic churches and other houses of worship serve as major community landmarks. Whether they’re on the town green, or a city street, or a country road, these examples of human artistic achievement in the service of something greater than us can make even the unbeliever’s heart jump just a little. But keeping these works of architecture there to inspire us comes at a cost. As many avenues of organized religious expression shrink, dwindling congregations struggle to keep a roof over their heads, and to keep that roof from leaking can seem a hopeless task.

To help care for their historic buildings, eight Episcopal congregations from Connecticut are currently taking part in a fundraising training program called “New Dollars/New Partners,” offered by Partners for Sacred Places (“Partners”), a national organization for the preservation of historic places of worship. Like much of the organization’s work, this training program is based on a discovery that Partners made many years ago: that most churches and synagogues, mosques and temples serve many people who never take part in worship. They house soup kitchens and day care centers, host scouts and AA meetings, serve as emergency shelters and startup facilities for community organizations. A study done by Partners in 1998 discovered that typically 81 percent of the people using a congregation’s building are non-members, that the average congregation provides 5,300 hours of volunteer support to its programs, and that the annual subsidy provided by congregations to their community is more than $140,000 per year.

This heavy use can put strains on old buildings, but many religious groups see maintenance, let alone restoration, work as selfishly spending money on themselves. They would rather put their limited money directly into doing good for others. But Partners have found that community service creates opportunities for congregations to reach beyond themselves for support, by appealing to others who wish to assist in their good deeds.

“New Dollars/New Partners” is intended for parishes that have buildings that are more than 50 years old, capital needs beyond the means of the congregation to fund internally, outreach ministries that serve the larger community, and a vision for the future. The program is designed for eight to twelve congregations at a time and is usually sponsored by a denominational body (in this case the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut), but other models are possible. The year-long program includes four all-day training sessions for congregational representatives, with work for the entire membership between sessions. Training is divided into four major sections, covering these topics:

Making the case: outlining the church’s history in a community context and the historical significance and physical condition of its building(s), highlighting how the church uses its assets to serve the larger community, and developing congregational leadership for planning and fundraising.

New community partnerships: identifying community assets and strengths; forging new partnerships to encourage collaboration, giving and volunteering; and mapping the congregation’s assets.

Capital campaign primer: structuring a capital campaign within the congregation, with potential roles for professional fundraisers.

Tapping community funding resources: conducting an external capital campaign focusing on the cultural significance of the church’s building; researching potential givers; writing persuasive grant applications; and partnering with other congregations on capital fundraising.

Of the eight churches taking part in the training, seven are listed on the National Register, either individually or as part of a NR district. The needs they cited fell naturally into several well-known categories: repairs to towers and roofs, with their complex structural requirements; conservation of fragile stained glass windows and organs; making old buildings, often comprising several sections built at different times, fully accessible; and basic, but often ignored, maintenance.

One key is to raising money, these congregations are finding, is to define the church’s role in the larger community. The Rev. Margaret Minnick, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Middletown, said that her congregation has come to realize that it has often been an incubator for community organizations. New groups would use the church’s space for a while and then move out when they got too big or found and could afford space that better fit their needs. “Over the years, we’ve housed Middletown’s first high school, Head Start classes, shelters, and more,” said Minnick. “Last year, we started a shelter for homeless people who couldn’t get into the city’s shelter. This year, the shelter has moved to a more appropriate space at Connecticut Valley Hospital. That was difficult at first—some church members thought we were throwing out the homeless—but eventually we realized that we had fostered something that just moved on to a better space. Now we’re looking for a new need to fill.”

Consultation with the broader community is a part of that effort, and residents from the city’s poor North End have suggested a third-shift daycare center for parents who have to work at night, a need that no one in town is currently meeting. To do that, Holy Trinity hopes to add a second story to its office wing, to create a bright and attractive space that will meet all the codes.

Sometimes the community service takes more humble forms. James Bradley, rector of St. John’s in Waterbury, says his church provides a truly vital service that is difficult to find in downtown Waterbury: public restrooms.

Some churches have chosen to sell part of their property in order to take care of parts that get more active use. St. Luke’s in New Haven, an historic black Episcopal congregation, recently sold its rectory and used the proceeds to repair the church’s slate roof.

A congregation’s history can sometimes provide sources of funding. The Rev. Barbara Cheney, rector of St. Paul and St. James Episcopal Church in New Haven’s Wooster Square neighborhood, says the church was surprised recently to hear from the Episcopal diocese of Kansas. While celebrating a recent anniversary, the diocese discovered that early Episcopal missionary work in Kansas had been sponsored by St. Paul’s church (one of two congregations that merged in 1993 to form St. Paul and St. James, familiarly known as “St. PJ’s”). As the Kansans learned more about St. PJ’s current situation, as an urban church with a small congregation and a building in need of work, they sent a generous contribution.

The church has received other gifts from members who have moved away, from descendants of members and from congregations that the church helped in the past. “Getting information about us and our history out there” has helped inspire these gifts, says Cheney.

Other congregations seconded the importance of getting the word out, not only about their history, but about the role they continue to play in their communities. When a homeless man died of exposure in New London, St. James Episcopal Church started looking for a way to open its cold-weather homeless shelter earlier than scheduled. Local press interviewing the curate asked what it would take, and he answered simply, “$15,000.” The money came the next day. “Sometimes our congregation is hampered by the fear that we’re seen as the rich Episcopalians,” said the Rev. Michael Belt, the rector of St. James. “But I’ve found that a lot of people don’t really have any idea who we are, and they certainly don’t see us as rich.”

In the end, religious buildings contribute more to their communities than space for charitable activities. Their historic architecture itself can provide be a service. “We found that people pass our church and whether it’s in the daylight or at night when it’s lit up, it gives them a sense of security, like they know they can count on us,” said one member of Trinity Episcopal Church, located on the town green in Branford. “And in the end, that’s what we’re here for.” For more information… Partners for Sacred Places: (215) 567-3234 or www.sacredplaces.org.

SIDEBAR: These Connecticut churches currently taking part in the Partners for Sacred Places’ New Dollars/New Partners training:
Trinity Episcopal Church, Branford (church 1851; hall, c.1910; parish house, 1950). Branford Center National Register district. Building needs to be made accessible.
Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford (church 1891, Frederick Clarke Withers; tower 1912, Frederick Clarke Withers; parish hall, 1961, Huntington & Darbee). Church needs roof work.
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Middletown (church 1874; parish hall c.1909; Sunday School wing 1960s). Main Street National Register district. Needs repairs to roof and stonework and tower, plus accessibility improvements.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, New Haven (church, 1905, Brown & Von Beren; parish house, 1964). Individually listed on National Register. Roof recently repaired.
St. Paul and St. James Episcopal Church, New Haven (church, 1829, Sidney Mason Stone, builder; parish house, 1889; chapel, c.1910, Cram & Ferguson). Wooster Square National Register district. Needs window repairs, accessibility improvements.
St. James Episcopal, New London (church, 1847, Richard Upjohn; parish house, 1968). Individually listed on National Register. Church needs general renovation; parish house suffers from deferred maintenance.
Christ Episcopal Church, Norwich (church, 1846, Richard Upjohn; parish house, 1950s). Chelsea Parade National Register district. Needs structural repairs, better HVAC.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Waterbury (Church, 1873, Henry Dudley; St. John’s Center, 1890, R. W. Hill; parish house 1922, Richard Henry Dana.) Currently fundraising for elevator, new wiring and organ repairs.