Sacred Places in Transition

Volume 51, Issue 3 :: Rachel Hildebrandt | Photographs by Chris Kendig

Wharton Wesley United Methodist Church

The Wharton Wesley United Methodist Church is typical of many former mainline Protestant churches: underutilized, difficult to way-find, and not accessible to the disabled.

Philadelphia’s religious building stock is in transition, due in large part to the declining memberships and resources of many congregations, which echoes the situation in cities and towns across the country. The moment a building is sold by a congregation or its denominational office, a new user will likely decide its long-term fate. The numbers confirm this. Of the city’s 839 purpose-built religious properties, 17 percent are no longer in religious use. Half are no longer occupied by the original congregation. Since 2009, nearly 35 religious buildings have been demolished.

Many of the mainline Protestant congregations that have not yet left the city’s less affluent neighborhoods or transitioned their buildings to congregations of other denominations are likely to do so in the next decade. There is great opportunity to initiate new congregations or new community-serving programs at these sites, but most denominational bodies lack the capacity to invest in creative, new alternatives.

Neighborhood Dance Space at WWUMC

Wharton Wesley Church offers space for neighborhood dance within its under-utilized facilities.

Meanwhile, “hermit crab congregations,” which took on properties built by congregations of other denominations (typically Protestant or Roman Catholic), are struggling to sufficiently care for their buildings—many of which suffered from deferred maintenance under their original owners. Instead of attempting to restore their buildings with scarce reserves, these congregations are de-accessioning them. This trend is especially apparent among Roman Catholic-built complexes that were de-accessioned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the early 1990s. Catholic churches in North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia were closed and subsequently sold to independent, mostly African American congregations or aspirational nonprofit organizations. Nearly three decades later, many of these buildings are coming onto the market for a second time.

Often, hermit crab congregations transition their properties to real estate developers who intend to demolish the structures, clearing the path for new construction. This transitioning takes a variety of forms. In 2016, we researched 28 demolitions that took place between 2009 and 2016. Of the 28 cases, 22 were associated with development pressure. Of these 22 demos, 20 made way for new housing. There were no instances of the 22 where the congregation that originally erected the building (the first occupant) sold to a developer who planned to demolish it. In 15 of the cases, a hermit crab congregation sold to a developer who planned to demolish; there were three instances where a new congregation resulting from a merger sold to a developer; in three cases the congregation’s denominational office—which acquired property upon the congregation’s disbandment—sold to a developer who planned to demolish. The data suggest that the length and strength of a congregation’s attachment to its property matters. Attachment substantially affects the building’s outcome.

Vulnerability and Resilience

Philadelphia Masjid Back to School giveaway

The Philadelphia Masjid offers a ‘Back to School’ give-away to local families in its community.

An examination of the factors that contribute to congregational vulnerability and resilience are at the heart of the PennPraxis-Partners study. Funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted in partnership with PennPraxis, the study produced an updated citywide inventory of older, purpose-built sacred places and an accompanying narrative that summarized key research findings. Initially, the idea was to classify each of the 22 congregations studied as either vulnerable or resilient. It was impossible to do this, however, because any given congregation exhibits signs of both vulnerability and resiliency. A congregation is vulnerable when one or more circumstances open it up to possible closure or merger. Poor, unstable, or changing leadership; inability to sustain a paid, full-time clergyperson; declining membership and giving; significant internal conflict; antagonistic relationship with denominational leaders or unsupportive leaders are all factors that contribute to congregational vulnerability. When a congregation is facing these realities while also trying to plan for the future, preservation of the institution almost always takes precedence over preservation of the building.

A different set of circumstances can render the building vulnerable. Among them are the congregation’s desire to preserve the institution at any cost to the building; the congregation is not the original owner/occupant; only a small portion of the property is used; the congregation is unable or unwilling to properly care for the building; no qualified professionals are involved to assess the condition of the building envelope and systems; there is a disconnect between the congregation and the surrounding community; most congregants are commuters who live outside the community; the issue of parking has become contentious; there is pressure to sell due to real estate conditions/values in the community; the property is not locally landmarked.

Consequently, struggling congregations explore the following options: downsizing into smaller, more manageable properties; merging into other, typically stronger congregations; closing the doors altogether. They explore these options in this order: hoping first to keep their faith community together in familiar surroundings; second, to keep their faith community together elsewhere. This ability to respond to hardship and to adapt to survive epitomizes resilience. But congregational resilience can render historic sacred places vulnerable. Congregations that are not necessarily struggling to stay afloat transition their buildings as well. This is especially true of commuter congregations in communities with strong housing markets. In this context, congregations extract the value of the real estate to create funds that can be used to invigorate and sustain the congregation and to ease congregants’ commute, including their ability to park. A notable example of this occurred with the selling of New Hope Temple Baptist Church. The building was originally Union Baptist Church, where renowned African American vocalist and activist Marian Anderson first performed and where her vocal talent was cultivated as a teenager. In 2015 the congregation sold its historic yet unprotected building to a real estate developer who replaced it with luxury townhomes.

Infill Philadelphia: Sacred Places / Civic Spaces

Zion Baptist Church empty space

The cavernous Zion Baptist Church facilities contain an empty performance space in its ‘annex’ that could become a community asset.

Given these circumstances, which are playing out in many cities across the US, unprecedented numbers of religious buildings will be transitioned out of religious use in the years to come. Many of these buildings will be adapted for residential use or demolished—unless key constituencies convene to identify alternatives.

Partners for Sacred Places and Philadelphia’s Community Design Collaborative are challenging the notion that these are the only options facing at-risk properties. A collaborative new program, Infill Philadelphia: Sacred Places / Civic Spaces, seeks to inspire people to imagine an alternative future in which older and historic sacred places serve as inclusive community hubs. Funded by the William Penn Foundation, Infill Philadelphia: Sacred Places / Civic Spaces adds the design community’s voice to a growing dialogue about the intersection between sacred places and community vitality. Working teams—each composed of a congregation, a community group, and a design firm—will, through an iterative design process, envision a new future for each congregation’s property.

What are the goals of this new program? The hope is to demonstrate that underutilized space in historic sacred properties throughout Philadelphia can be activated in ways that expand the civic commons, serve a larger secular purpose, and strengthen communities while also sustaining congregations themselves. The idea is also to promote understanding of the realities faced by faith communities stewarding historic, purpose-built sacred places—what are the challenges and how can we meet them through working together? Historic, purpose-built religious properties present common design challenges—what can be learned that can be shared among congregations? Another goal is to develop innovative, replicable models in which religious buildings house a multitude of co-existing religious and secular uses.

Work by three teams is underway: The Philadelphia Masjid, which is collaborating with People’s Emergency Center and HOK; Wharton Wesley United Methodist Church, which is partnered with ACHIEVEability and Brawer & Hauptman Architects; and Zion Baptist Church, which is working with Called to Serve CDC and Studio 6mm.

The Philadelphia Masjid, a mosque nestled within a former Roman Catholic school, represents the many congregations that have taken on large, Roman Catholic properties. Wharton Wesley United Methodist Church, the product of the strategic merger of a growing black congregation and a declining white one, is a prototypical example of congregations involved in adapting Mainline Protestant churches with many challenges. Wharton’s facilities are underutilized, difficult to way-find, and not accessible to the disabled. Zion Baptist Church, which peaked at 6,000 members under civil rights leader and social activist Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, is typical of a congregation that is struggling to build upon the legacy of a larger-than-life figure who put the church on the map.

Launched in June of this year, the initiative first sponsored a precedent exhibit featuring built examples of sacred places accommodating new, community-serving uses—from congregations and nonprofit organizations that had recast their historic religious buildings (and adjacent landscapes) for new construction that was relevant to the faith community’s mission. The exhibit, on display at Philadelphia’s Center for Architecture + Design from June 1 to July 31, featured 25 sites.

Since June, Partners for Sacred Places and Community Design Collaborative have been working with the three teams to determine the program for their properties. Each of the congregations had ideas and preferences, which were evaluated by community stakeholders. Community stakeholders convened at each site during July to identify assets inherent to the respective site, congregation, and community, and then group assets to create new initiatives that make the highest and best use of the site. To learn more about this initiative and stay in the loop, please visit

The author is a senior program manager at Partners for Sacred Places in Philadelphia. More information on Infill Philadelphia can be found at A version of this article appeared in Context.