2009-12-17 / Church News

As Churches Struggle, More Go Up For Sale

By Craig Smith

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Johanna Yoho knew the North Side church she attended since childhood couldn’t hang on much longer.

With membership and collections dwindling, Mt. Zion Lutheran Church merged with another congregation in 2006. Afterward, a consultant recommended conducting services in the newer and larger Brighton Heights Lutheran Church and putting Mt. Zion up for sale.

About 70 churches have changed hands in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Mercer, Washington and Westmoreland counties since 2007, according to RealSTATs, a South Side-based real estate information company. Dozens more across Western Pennsylvania have posted “for sale’’ signs.

“Selling churches is not an easy thing,’’ said Tom Conroy, a sales representative with Howard Hanna Commercial, who is handling the sale of the Mt. Zion church building to another congregation and expects the sale to close soon.

But it’s a sign of the times.

The former St. Nicholas Church on Route 28 may be sold to Lamar Advertising, parish officials said last week. The parish said it reached an “agreement in principle’’ to sell the 108-year-old church, which closed in 2004.

Restoring buildings that were constructed 100 or 200 years ago can be costly. A roof could cost $50,000; one stained-glass window could cost $20,000, according to preservationists.

“Smaller churches have a difficult time surviving the aging process,’’ said Danny Muzyka, president and founder of Service Realty, which handled the sale of hundreds of churches in Texas, Colorado, California, Washington, and Arizona.

Many church buildings are sold to other churches, but sometimes they’re converted to schools, day care centers, art galleries, private residences. One notable example is the former St. John the Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, which reopened in 1996 as a pub and restaurant called the Church Brew Works. That deal touched off a controversy and resulted in new policies at the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“We were assured that all religious items were removed before the sale. They weren’t,’’ said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, diocesan spokesman.

In addition to increased inspections and inventorying of the contents of church buildings, sales agreements now give the diocese a right of first refusal if a parish sells a property to a nonfaith group, he said. Twelve churches in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh have sold since 2007.

Most churches prefer to sell buildings to other churches or for compatible uses, but at some point, it becomes a matter of dollars and cents.

“There’s often a sentimental attraction. A lot of people have been baptized there, married there,’’ said Ned Doran, executive vice president of GVA Oxford, a Pittsburgh-based commercial real estate company. “But the upkeep on older properties is phenomenal.’’

Maintaining Mt. Zion doubled the Brighton Heights budget, said the Rev. Brian Shirey, its pastor.

“Last year it cost us $22,000 to heat and light a vacant building,’’ he said.

The church, built in 1900, once served as headquarters for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Lutheran Church, Shirey said.

“If I had the money, I’d turn it into a museum. It’s a historical site for Lutheranism in Pittsburgh,’’ he said.

Three Rivers Grace Church found a home in a West End church previously owned by the United Church of Christ. After leasing the former United Methodist Church in Beechview, the congregation bought the West End Church for $175,000, said Rev. Ben Reaoch, pastor.

The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh opened a charter school in a former B’nai Israel synagogue in Highland Park after buying the building for $670,000 at auction. The congregation first offered the building for sale at $3 million, said Vince Lepera, Urban League vice president.

The 17,000-square-foot former Our Savior Lutheran Church, built in the 1950s, is for sale for $995,000 following the merger of Our Savior and Hope Lutheran Church in McMurray this year.

Though they might be unused, old church buildings hold an attraction for those who grew up in them. Some house hidden treasures. Mt. Zion, for example, contains an M.P. Moller pipe organ that would cost about $500,000 to replace, Conroy said.

Closing the church saddened parishioners, but the church is more than a building, said Yoho.

“If you get that attached to a building, you don’t understand what we’re here for,’’ she said.

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