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State's Empty Churches Seek New Uses


April 24, 2013

We often see houses of worship as fixtures on the landscape and in our lives. Yet more than a score of them in Connecticut's urban, suburban and rural areas are for sale or seeking new uses because although pulpits teach that God is eternal, places consecrated for prayer are not.

Frequently in town centers, religious structures are typically focal points of community activities. Even non-members and non-believers visit occasionally for weddings, funerals and other life events of friends and relatives. Such buildings range from storefronts to grand stone edifices with steeples or domes and elaborate columns. But whether as a white clapboard meeting house or a contemporary with multiple gables and glass walls, they remain signature place-defining institutions.

Houses of worship take on new uses because congregations dwindle or because they grow and move to larger, more modern quarters. Sometimes changing community character, such as the fading of a once-dominant ethnic group, or trends in religious practices dictates their closure.

Avon's Christ Episcopal Church held its final service in December and is among the most recent to shut its doors because of declining human and financial resources, according to Audrey Scanlon, canon for mission collaboration and congregational life with the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. It's a handsome, modern building dating from the 1960s with a lattice-like steeple. In seeking a new purpose for the building that "maintains its dignity, is consistent with the church's mission," and is locally sensitive, the diocese recently held an on-site "listening" meeting. Among possible uses are performing arts, latchkey services for children or a different religious community.

Such changes are not new. Close to my Collinsville home is a pair of former churches closed for more than two generations. St. Matthew German Lutheran Church was dedicated in 1894 when German was the language of worship. A growing congregation and limited parking caused the church's move to Avon in 1963, and today the old building is a multifamily dwelling.

The Swedish Evangelical Pilgrim Church, built in 1893 in the Gothic "stick" style, closed in 1960. It's now a single-family home and frame shop. Two miles distant on Route 44 is a Greek Revival Baptist church dating to 1807 that was used until the 1960s when a new church was built nearby. The old church has housed a variety of commercial uses, including retail and offices.

Changing demographics often bring new religious affiliations. Hartford's Emanuel Synagogue and Congregation Agudas Achim, two grand brick structures with tripartite doorways built in the 1920s, now serve Christian denominations after the Jewish congregations moved to West Hartford in the latter half of the 20th century. An Italianate brick building built just after the Civil War in Bridgeport as the Bethesda Mission Chapel was later a Baptist church, then home to the city's first orthodox synagogue, and is now the Apostolic Worship Center.

Fortunately for those who enjoy the beauty of these former houses of God, many have become cultural centers. The Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven is in the 1871 Victorian brick Calvary Baptist Church minus its once tall spire. New Britain's Trinity-on-Main, which styles itself "a space for arts, community and culture" is a dramatic gray granite structure with Romanesque arches and a soaring tower in what was once Trinity United Methodist Church, built in 1891.

Hartford's Charter Oak Cultural Center is in the state's oldest synagogue building. Built of brick in 1876 with Romanesque arches and twin rounded towers, it was home to Congregation Beth Israel until 1936 and Calvary Baptist Church until 1972.

Former houses of worship are also places where the godly power of creation continues in the form of art objects. Built of locally quarried stone and finished in 1830, Riverton's Union Church later became a museum for Hitchcock Chair and is now the studio and showroom of master glass blower Peter Greenwood. His chandeliers, vases, bowls and decorative pieces capture light in prismatic sparkles from tall Gothic windows. While he doesn't claim to draw any special inspiration from his building, some craftspeople, like Collinsville Framing's Kristen Stevens in the old Swedish church, say they feel a spiritual presence.

Former houses of prayer may no longer be sacred ground in a traditional sense. Nevertheless, they often shelter the sacraments of everyday life, bringing them closer to the divine than we commonly think.

David K. Leff is the author of "Hidden in Plain Sight: A Deep Traveler Explores Connecticut" (Wesleyan, 2012). For more go to http://www.davidkleff.com

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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