Zeal of the newly converted

Churches across the US are being redeveloped for residential and secular use.

Across America, real estate is the new religion, and increasingly, religion is the new real estate.

Changing demographics has meant that many churches, especially ones in urban areas, can no longer be financially supported by their dwindling worshipers. At the same time, a housing boom has meant lofty valuations for these buildings, many of which are situated in prime residential locations.

Take, for example, the St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church and boys' school in Cobble Hill, a hot brownstone neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Developers have just finished selling off this 1859 structure, now called The Arches, as condos, with the largest unit sold for roughly $1.8 million. Kim Soule, a broker with Corcoran Group in New York, which handled the sale of The Arches units, says: “People felt that the uniqueness of the space was worth a premium. There are a lot of cookie cutter condos out there. But if you take a fabulous old church with large windows and a soaring roof, that's something special.”

Catholic real estate in particular is changing hands. In St. Louis, Missouri, 18 Catholic churches, along with schools and rectories, are on the block, thanks largely to population shifts in the city. In Boston, where the archdiocese is struggling under the weight of child molestation damages, 60 churches are reportedly for sale.

Church conversions bring with them some controversy. Faithful members of the affected congregations are not always pleased to have their house of worship converted to a house, or – God forbid – a nightclub.

A cautionary tale si the infamous limelight in New York City, a former Episcopal chuch converted into a nightclub by Peter Gatien, which became notorious for drugs and general debauchery in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Some sellers have structured clauses that disallow buyers from using the buildings for “sordid” purposes – strip clubs, abortion clinics, etc. Sold churches that are not converted to an alternative use may be, of course, torn down.

Plans to convert St. Brigid's, in New York's East Village, into condos have been met with protests from some former worshipers. Corcoran's Soule says none of the prospective buyers of the Arches units found anything untoward about moving into a former house of worship. “The people who did, didn't show up,” she adds.


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