Old churches in danger as congregations dwindle
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — Robert L. Xifaras, attorney and developer, placed the key in the front door of the towering red brick Trinity Methodist Church, looming on New Bedford’s skyline.
The door swung open, revealing how much damage an old church can sustain if it is left vacant for six years. Skylines do change. Xifaras believes he can save this part of it.
It has been that long since the dwindling congregation moved out of the building because they could no longer afford the maintenance and utility bills. “The parishioners dwindled to nothing,” Xifaras said.
He said that two or three years ago he got some prospective developers together and proceeded to negotiate a purchase and sale agreement, the finalization of which is nearly complete, and thus still private. The project received a major boost late last year when the property was rezoned for mixed use, steeply adding to its value because of the many options it opened up.
Xifaras said that his role is to be the developer for the eventual nonprofit owner, an entity known as the South Coast Grecian Marketplace. As it stands now, the project will employ hundreds of people in the many aspects of construction and restoration, he says.
Xifaras is dreaming big with this project, which at age 89 he says is his “last hurrah.”
Just in time, if this works out. Xifaras sees past the peeling paint and plaster, the exposed laths in the vaulted ceiling opened up by leaks. “It has gotten a lot worse lately,” Xifaras declared.
The church is massive, thousands of square feet of floor space and a sanctuary, with all its enormous pews intact, capable of seating a thousand people, something that is a fading memory.
The massive pipe organ is said to work, the last time being a public concert before the closing.
Xifaras said that the church, which represents the merger of three Methodist congregations, had no bidders in the time between when it closed and today. “It’s vacant because it is too big and expensive for the parishioners.”
But Xifaras has big plans for those big spaces, huge rooms with roll-up tambour doors to open up or close separate spaces. He’s talking a dinner club complete with a dance floor and performing musicians. He envisions space for local artists to congregate. He’s thinking about a cafe, and a space for the performing arts, local musicians, though not in competition with the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. And above all, he sees a convention center, which the city has lacked since the New Bedford Hotel closed in the 1950s.
The cost of buying the massive red brick building is going to be a fraction of what it will cost to repair and renovate the structure. But Xifaras is confident it can be done. “I am determined to make this happen,” said the former owner of Alhambra’s in Westport.
As with other churches that fall into disrepair such as this, it will take in excess of $1 million to get the building in shape and up to code. Some Catholic churches such as St. John the Baptist on County Street in New Bedford, the oldest Portuguese Catholic church in the country, were closed by the Diocese of Fall River, often driven by economics. According to diocese spokesman John Kearns, St. John’s, which closed in 2012, has been emptied of its content of religious objects. Some of the objects were sent to other parts of the country; others to nearby churches.
The closing of the Romanesque, granite St. John’s prompted a bitter fight with protests of the Portuguese-American parishioners on the front steps. Afterward there was talk of making it the city’s long sought Portuguese Cultural Center. But as for selling the building, “We have had some interested by buyers but nothing has come to fruition,” Kearns said. Prospective buyers are vetted by the church to ensure they can finance the project.
A SIGN OF THE TIMES
There are no fewer than six New Bedford churches that have already closed their doors even as their buildings have remained standing, some for a few years, others more than a decade. Besides Trinity Methodist, the closed churches are all former Catholic ones and include St. Ann’s and St. John the Baptist in the South End and St. Kilian’s, St. Casimir’s and St. Therese’s in the North End. Some are historic castles built around the turn of the century, some are more modest contemporary architecture, built as recently as the 1960s.
With the Diocese of Fall River currently examining the operation of some churches that struggle financially and some of the city’s mainline Protestant churches facing dwindling congregations, there very well could be other buildings closed, some of them among the city’s most impressive.
St. Kilian’s, a handsome granite structure in the North End built for the Irish immigrants, had a partially Mayan immigrant congregation when it closed in 2015. But the church is not for sale because its rectory is being used by Catholic Social Services, said Kearns.
The pattern of these closings is well known. Congregations, many of them ethnic, immigrated to America and built the biggest and most impressive churches that they could. St. Anthony’s on Acushnet Avenue may be the grandest example. St. Lawrence Martyr, where the historic bells were sold over the cost of their repair and the parish’s debt last year, is another.
As the years passed, people have died off or moved outward into the suburbs, and newer, modern churches were built to serve them there. The older, more grandiose churches have been very difficult to afford.
Rev. David Lima, executive minister of the Interfaith Council of Greater New Bedford, said that churches with soaring, vaulted ceilings, such as Trinity or Our Lady of Guadeloupe at St. James in New Bedford, can be enormously expensive simply to heat. He said that at Guadeloupe, to take an example, the pastor fired up the heat to at least get the church up to 55 degrees for Mass. “People were expected to wear their coats,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, heating bills could top $2,000 a week depending on the price of heating oil.
Another factor is the demographics of a congregation. Some in lower income neighborhoods in the inner city struggle far more than others.
Lima said that the Grace Episcopal Church on Spring Street is an Anglican church with many British members. “There’s a lot of wealth from mill owners,” he said. “It had a lot of endowments from merchants and mill owners.”
Fire in 1987 threatened to end the story of Grace Episcopal, with millions in damage. Fortunately, said Lima, insurance covered two-thirds of the losses, but the congregation still needed $2 million to complete the restoration.
That work was capped over the last few years by the rebuilding of the steeple and bell tower, preserving the church’s presence on the city skyline.
A PICTURE OF THE CITY
Michael Dyer, senior historian at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, has been spending a lot of time examining the famous world-record panorama painted by Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington 1847 that will go on display later this year. “As a primary source it can’t get any better than the panorama,” Dyer said.
Most people know that the panorama documents a whaling voyage to the Pacific. But Dyer has been looking at the images on the part of the scroll of New Bedford and the harbor. The painting depicts hundreds of buildings, many of them churches perched atop County Street. He has been matching up the painting with such things as maps of the city made in the mid to late 1800s.
Two maps hang on his office wall, made a few years apart. “These are completely different cities,” he said.
Dyer proceeds to point out landmarks like the First Baptist Church, built in 1829 and now under renovation as a theater after years of work by the Waterfront Historic Area League, the city and the Interchurch Council of Greater New Bedford.
Much has been said about the historic nature of the First Baptist, especially since urban renewal wiped out several churches where Interstate 195 was built. The church was a center of abolitionist activity and where Robert’s Rules of Order were first used during the Civil War.
Lima said that “most of us recognize that the city would have boarded it up a few years ago if it wasn’t up to the fact that it was on the city seal and next door to City Hall.”
Boarding up the windows? “The last thing they were going to want to do is put a no trespassing sign on a church that was that integral to the history of the city,” he said.
He praised the congregation, small as it is, for determination. “They are a congregation that might have walked away but they continued to want to be there,” Lima said.
The fact that the project is getting under way draws great credit for Mayor Jon Mitchell who convinced the Waterfront Historical Area League, led by Director Teri Bernert in brokering the agreement with the congregation.
The city’s civic and religious leaders learned a lot in recent years by participation in the Save Our Sacred Spaces initiative, which travels the country spreading the word about endangered religious buildings and offering suggestions on ways to preserve them. Two two-day workshops were conducted to advance the idea that partnerships are the way to go. Local leaders also did some site visits to see how it is done.
Lima said that a church in Cambridge has been held up as a model as the congregation shares space with a ballet company. The sanctuary has been adapted to accommodate the religious services, and then putting the pulpit and pews into storage. The arrangement helps the finances, too. While a building used for religious purposes cannot accept government grant money the arts entities can, and do.
Anne Louro, New Bedford’s city preservation planner, said that the Sacred Spaces project, with two days on two separate occasions in 2014, one each for Grace Church and the other for the First Unitarian Church, discussed the future of the city’s church buildings. “It was about ‘how are we doing with shared use or adaptive reuse?’” The Cambridge church/ballet school “is a best case scenario.”
Locally, Louro said that the workshops “were our way of addressing some of the needs historic structures have,” with space rented out or utilized. There was “great participation.” After the workshops ended, six churches decided to participate in “new dollars, new partners,” she said.
Some churches are deciding to share their space with other congregations. One such arrangement exists at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in downtown New Bedford.
Pastor Doug Cederberg said that the church is used on Saturdays by a congregation of Seventh Day Adventists, mainly Cape Verdean and non-English-speaking. The Pilgrim United Congregation meets Sundays, “and never the twain shall meet.”
Cederberg said that the sharing goes back about 10 years, and doesn’t appreciably affect the bottom line.
He offered an observation: “Churches usually close for two reasons: They run out of people, or they run out of money.”
Dyer sounded optimistic that the city will do everything it can to preserve its skyline by saving the churches and buildings that it can, as WHALE has been doing for the past half century. “There is a great deal of pride of place here,” Dyer said. He added that historical preservation is integral to the local economy. He said that New Bedford will do well “assuming the economy stays good and cities like New Bedford don’t crumble into ruin like Detroit, for instance.” They bulldozed whole sections of the city “that didn’t function anymore.”
WHALE is proving to be pivotal in building rescues and restorations. Lately there are the Seamen’s Bethel and Mariners Home which were reborn thanks to WHALE, the Port Society, and the city partnering.
Bernert said that within days there could be visible work being done on the First Baptist. First comes the bell tower and steeple, she said. “Scaffolding will probably go up at the beginning of June.”
The windows are 90 percent restored and have to be installed. “Once the tower is done, attention will shift to the exterior work.”
“This is our premier project,” Bernert said.
Information from: The (New Bedford, Mass.) Standard-Times, http://www.southcoasttoday.com