Pew Charitable Trusts has been working on an in-depth study of Philadelphia, called the Philadelphia research initiative, that aims to provide timely, impartial research and analysis to help Philadelphia’s citizens and leaders understand and address key issues facing the city. A recent study as part of this initiative was study of sacred spaces in the city.
The study defined as sacred spaces as buildings constructed as houses of worship before 1965, regardless of whether they are currently used in that way. The research found that 839 historic sacred places (HSPs) were still standing in 2015 and early 2016, one for roughly every 1,900 city residents.
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This research, led by PennPraxis at the University of Pennsylvania with assistance from Partners for Sacred Places, seeks to document Philadelphia’s historic sacred places, to examine the role these buildings play in the city’s public life, and to analyze what factors are likely to determine whether those currently functioning as religious facilities will continue to do so—or face different futures in the years ahead.
In addition to cataloging the city’s historic sacred places and their conditions, the research included in-depth examinations of 22 of the structures—20 churches, a synagogue, and a Buddhist temple—and interviews with the leaders of their congregations. All were still in religious use, and they were chosen to provide a representative sample of the larger group in terms of geography, architecture, denomination, and how long the congregation had been in existence. The goal was to identify key factors of vulnerability and resilience that will help determine whether the buildings continue to be used for their original purpose or adapted for a new use.
One of the questions they asked was how are these spaces used today. By far, the vast majority are still used for worship and other religious activities, though about half no longer house the original congregation. They also noted that between 2011 and 2015, 23 former houses of worship had been demolished. They also noted a number of Roman catholic spaces that were still used for occasional worship services, but which no longer housed active congregations.
Among buildings still used for religious purposes, just 18 were categorized as non-Christian: 13 were Jewish, two Muslim, two Buddhist, and one interfaith. Another 11 were used by Quakers. Some Quakers consider themselves Christians; some do not. This study does not capture religious spaces built after 1965, or commercial spaces used for religious purposes, so it seems likely that many non-Christian religious buildings were not counted.
It noted that these spaces, beyond being places for worship also served genuine needs throughout the city and were often stable locations in changing neighborhoods, anchoring the residents in their vicinity.
Most HSPs provide civic value to their communities that extends beyond their importance to their own congregations. In some neighborhoods, HSPs serve as anchors of ethnic solidarity, as Lifeway Baptist does for its Russian community or as Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple does for the Cambodian immigrant community in South Philadelphia, where it occupies a former church. For Cambodians, the temple is very important. “It’s kind of like their home, their community, their identity,” said Muni Ratana, the temple’s chief monk. Churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions often serve as neighborhood service centers and share their buildings with nonprofit groups. They provide free space for community meetings on land use issues, zoning changes, and proposed construction projects. They operate food pantries, free-clothing services, and ministries for the homeless. They host meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon and run day care centers. Some offer free or low-rent space to art galleries, theater companies, and startup businesses.
An examination of the exteriors revealed that most were in good shape, despite widespread perceptions that many churches were facing serious neglect and decay. They do not though that their study was unable to assess building mechanical systems or interior conditions. An in-depth inspection, including interiors and systems of 22 buildings, representing a cross-section of the total, was also undertaken.
Based on the index, 61 buildings were judged to be in very good condition overall. Of those, 39 had the best possible score (zero) on all 13 measures. The other 22 had perfect scores on all visible features, but at least one feature was obscured from view, so the researcher could not classify its condition. On the whole, the majority of Philadelphia’s HSPs were in good or very good condition. In addition to the 61 with scores of zero, another 464 had scores of 0.2 or lower; the worst possible score was 1. The survey also found that the primary exterior material was in fair or good condition for 93 percent of the buildings.
As mentioned above, nearly half of the buildings surveyed still used for religious purposes houses a congregation different from the original. In one case, it was noted that a synagogue had become a church and is now a mosque, largely due to changing demographics in its location.
In the view of preservationists, transferring a building from one congregation to another is a positive outcome, in the sense that the structure retains its original function and need not face extensive internal renovation. On the other hand, if an old building was becoming too expensive for a congregation to handle, the new occupants may soon come to the same conclusion. Rachel Hildebrandt of Partners for Sacred Places cataloged demolitions of historic sacred places from 2009 to 2016. She categorized 22 as related to development pressure. Fifteen of those 22 stemmed from sales to developers by congregations that were not the original occupants of the building. None of the sales involved original occupants
The study also drew some conclusions about factors of vulnerability as well as factors of resilience. Factors of vulnerability were things like poor leadership, insufficient resources, deferred maintenance, and demographic change of the neighborhood and lack of connections to the neighborhood.
The evidence from the study suggests that financial stability and the leadership abilities of clergy and other decision-makers are the primary elements of resilience.
Internal factors included:
- Strong leadership/good laity-clergy relationship. Researchers found that the capability of congregational leaders, especially clergy, is paramount.
- Financial health/endowment. Even congregations that struggle to meet their annual budgets can perform major building repairs if they have funds in an endowment account. Well-managed endowments, while relatively rare, can provide financial stability in the face of declining membership.
- Stable building condition. Keeping up with building maintenance on a regular basis allows for stable financial planning.
- Adaptability of buildings/mixed use. Whether a historic sacred place remains in religious use or is offered for redevelopment, its long-term viability is likely to be affected by its architectural form. A basilica with a long nave and soaring, vaulted interior is less adaptable than a square or rectangular building with one coherent interior. Problematic, too, are complexes in which additions to the original structure were made at various times in differing styles.
- Congregational growth and diversity. The ability of a congregation to adapt to changing neighborhood demographics—to invite and welcome people of different races, ethnicities, and economic status—is a key to continuity.
- Sharing of space/use with civic partners. Just as isolation can lead to stagnation and decline, throwing open the doors by sharing space with community groups and offering programs that benefit the community can draw new life into a historic place of worship.