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From the Wall Street Journal:



Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale
Hundreds of Churches Have Closed or Are Threatened by Plunging Membership, Posing Question: What to Do With Unused Buildings?
By Naftali Bendavid
Jan. 2, 2015 7:36 p.m. ET



ARNHEM, Netherlands—Two dozen scruffy skateboarders launched perilous jumps in a soaring old church building here on a recent night, watched over by a mosaic likeness of Jesus and a solemn array of stone saints.

This is the Arnhem Skate Hall, an uneasy reincarnation of the Church of St. Joseph, which once rang with the prayers of nearly 1,000 worshipers.

It is one of hundreds of churches, closed or threatened by plunging membership, that pose a question for communities, and even governments, across Western Europe: What to do with once-holy, now-empty buildings that increasingly mark the countryside from Britain to Denmark?

The Skate Hall may not last long. The once-stately church is streaked with water damage and badly needs repair; the city sends the skaters tax bills; and the Roman Catholic Church, which still owns the building, is trying to sell it at a price they can’t afford.

“We’re in no-man’s-land,” says Collin Versteegh, the youthful 46-year-old who runs the operation, rolling cigarettes between denouncing local politicians. “We have no room to maneuver anywhere.”

The Skate Hall’s plight is replicated across a continent that long nurtured Christianity but is becoming relentlessly secular.

The closing of Europe’s churches reflects the rapid weakening of the faith in Europe, a phenomenon that is painful to both worshipers and others who see religion as a unifying factor in a disparate society.

“In these little towns, you have a cafe, a church and a few houses—and that is the village,” says Lilian Grootswagers, an activist who fought to save the church in her Dutch town. “If the church is abandoned, we will have a huge change in our country.”

Trends for other religions in Europe haven’t matched those for Christianity. Orthodox Judaism, which is predominant in Europe, has held relatively steady. Islam, meanwhile, has grown amid immigration from Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East.

The number of Muslims in Europe grew from about 4.1% of the total European population in 1990 to about 6% in 2010, and it is projected to reach 8%, or 58 million people, by 2030, according to Washington’s Pew Research Center.

For Christians, a church’s closure—often the centerpiece of the town square—is an emotional event. Here people have worshiped, felt grief and joy, and quested for a relationship with God. Even some secular residents are upset when these landmarks fall into disuse or are demolished.

When they close, towns often want to re-create the feeling of a community hub by finding important uses for these historic buildings. But the properties are usually expensive to maintain—and there is a limit to the number of libraries or concert halls a town can financially support. So commercial projects often take the space.

Europe-wide numbers of closed churches are scarce, but figures from individual countries are telling.

The Church of England closes about 20 churches a year. Roughly 200 Danish churches have been deemed nonviable or underused. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has shut about 515 churches in the past decade.

But it is in the Netherlands where the trend appears to be most advanced. The country’s Roman Catholic leaders estimate that two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years.

“The numbers are so huge that the whole society will be confronted with it,” says Ms. Grootswagers, an activist with Future for Religious Heritage, which works to preserve churches. “Everyone will be confronted with big empty buildings in their neighborhoods.”

The U.S. has avoided a similar wave of church closings for now, because American Christians remain more religiously observant than Europeans. But religious researchers say the declining number of American churchgoers suggests the country could face the same problem in coming years.

Many European churches have been centerpieces of their communities for centuries. Residents are often deeply attached to them, fighting pragmatic proposals to turn them into stores or offices.

Mr. Versteegh sees the skate hall as a benefit to the town, saying it serves to protect the building and also gives youngsters a way to enjoy themselves in a constructive way. But he says local Catholic and city leaders refuse to support it, he thinks due to its vaguely rebellious aura. “We don’t know which door to knock on,” he says.

Church and city leaders deny that, saying they like the Skate Hall but cite its precarious finances. “Collin wants sweet love. We’re going to give tough love,” says Gerrie Elfrink, Arnhem’s vice mayor. “He wants the easy way—‘Give me money and then I’ll have no problems.’ But that’s not sustainable.”

As communities struggle to reinvent their old churches, some solutions are less dignified than others. In Holland, one ex-church has become a supermarket, another is a florist, a third is a bookstore and a fourth is a gym. In Arnhem, a fashionable store called Humanoid occupies a church building dating to 1889, with racks of stylish women’s clothing arrayed under stained-glass windows.

In Bristol, England, the former St. Paul’s church has become the Circomedia circus training school. Operators say the high ceilings are perfect for aerial equipment like trapezes.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, a Lutheran church has become a Frankenstein-themed bar, featuring bubbling test tubes, lasers and a life-size Frankenstein’s monster descending from the ceiling at midnight.

Jason MacDonald, a supervisor at the pub, says he has never heard complaints about the reuse. “It’s for one simple reason: There are hundreds and hundreds of old churches and no one to go to them,” Mr. MacDonald said. “If they weren’t repurposed, they would just lie empty.”

Many churches, especially smaller ones, are becoming homes, and that has spawned an entire industry to connect would-be buyers with old churches.

The churches of England and Scotland list available properties online, with descriptions worthy of a realty firm. St. John’s church in Bacup, England, for example, is said to feature “a lofty nave as well as basement rooms with stone-vaulted ceilings,” and can be had for about $160,000.

The British website OurProperty is less subtle. “Is modern-day humdrum housing your idea of a living hell?” it asks. “Is living in a converted church your idea of heaven above?” If so, “there is a whole congregation of converts and experts out there ready to help you make the leap of faith.”

Unused churches are now a big enough problem to attract the attention of governments as well. The Netherlands, along with religious and civic groups, has adopted a national “agenda” for preserving the buildings. The Dutch province of Friesland—where 250 of 720 existing churches have been closed or transformed—fields a “Delta team” to find solutions.

“Every church is a debate,” says Albert Reinstra, a church expert at Holland’s Cultural Heritage Agency. “When they are empty, what do we do with it?” Preservationists say there often isn’t the money needed to create new community-oriented uses for the buildings.

That debate can play out personally and painfully. When Paul Clement, prior of the Augustinian Order in the Netherlands, joined in 1958, the order had 380 friars; now it is down to 39. His monastery’s youngest friar is 70, and Father Clement, himself 74, is developing plans to sell its church.

“It is difficult,” Father Clement says. “It’s sad for me.”

In the U.S., church statisticians say roughly 5,000 new churches were added between 2000 and 2010. But some scholars think America’s future will approach Europe’s, since the number of actual churchgoers fell 3% at the same time, according to Scott Thumma, professor of the sociology of religion at Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary.

Mr. Thumma says America’s churchgoing population is graying. Unless these trends change, he says, “within another 30 years the situation in the U.S. will be at least as bad as what is currently evident in Europe.”

At the Arnhem Skate Hall, the altar and organ of the church, built in 1928, have been ripped out, while a dusty cupboard still holds sheet music for a choir that hasn't sung in 10 years. A skateboard attached to a wall urges, “Ride the dark side.”

Two dozen young men speed along wooden ramps and quarter-pipes, their falls thundering through the church, as rap music reverberates where hymns once sounded. An old tire hangs on the statue of a saint.

Puck Smit, 21, a regular visitor, says the church ambience enhances the skating experience. “It creates a lot of atmosphere—it’s a bit of Middle Ages,” he says, between gulps from a large bottle of cola. “When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”

Another regular, Pelle Klomp, 14, says visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he says. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”

Mr. Versteegh, who oversees the hall, says city and church leaders won’t discuss their plans with him. The church needs about $3.7 million in maintenance, he estimates, and would cost $812,000 to buy, including the rectory—far beyond his resources.

Father Hans Pauw, pastor of St. Eusebius Parish, confirms the parish is trying to sell the church, but says church leaders have no problem with skaters using it for now. He said the parish is talking to a potential buyer.

“There are some things we don’t want—a casino or a sex palace or that kind of thing,” Father Pauw says. “But when it’s no longer a church in our eyes, then it can have any purpose.” As for the painting of Jesus holding a skateboard that now adorns the interior, he says, “I can see the humor in it.”

Mr. Elfrink, the Arnhem vice mayor, insists the city has done what it can to support the Skate Hall, helping fund the wooden skating floor and paying last year’s tax bill. “I hope it can stay a skate hall,” Mr. Elfrink says.

Mr. Versteegh sometimes wonders if it will. “Is there any point in continuing to do this if nobody is supporting you?” he says. “You have a building of value—historic value, cultural value—that is still owned by the Catholic Church. But there are no worshipers anymore.”

Corrections & Amplifications

Puck Smit and Pelle Klomp are regular visitors to the Arnhem Skate Hall. An earlier version of this article misspelled their first names as Pack and Pella. (Jan. 5, 2014)

Quote:Another regular, Pelle Klomp, 14, says visitors occasionally stop by to complain. “Especially the older people say, ‘It’s ridiculous, you’re dishonoring faith,’ ” he says. “And I can understand that. But they weren’t using it.”
LOL! That just about sums it up.

I don't see religion as a " unifying factor in a disparate society". No wonder churches are closing, if that's their perceived purpose.

We must distinguish between protestant/novus ordo/wacky churches closing, vs. real Catholic churches closing. There are fewer congregants, parishioners, and worshipers in places where the true Mass died out long ago. Is that much of a tragedy? I'm not sure. The Catholics who went off saying "religion is merely a civic duty to build a strong society" don't deserve the name Catholic anymore. Certainly, the atheistic corporate-manager mindset of most European bishops has probably brought this on faster.

The single greatest cause of closure, in my opinion, has been the destruction of the holy Mass. If it truly appealed to the human senses in the natural way - i.e. smells, bells, gestures, and orations - men would not be leaving the practice of Faith. Perhaps it's a shallow reason to go to Mass, initially... but then again, the same applies to rationalism, guitars, liturgical dance, and bongos. If we're going to be shallow, let's be so in an ancient manner.  Blush

Anyway, this consequence of secularism doesn't bother me that much. The majority of these places are awful, gaudy neo-gothic monstrosities or overbearing neo-classical chaos. The Church is the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, and the People of God: the True Israel, redeemed by the incarnate Saviour. Our altars may be in houses, on jeep-hoods, in prison camps, or under oak trees. These things are not ideal... but it is hardly a triumph for the atheists if we lose church buildings and a few non-Catholic Catholics.

If we would convert and love God and our neighbour as Christ did, we'd see a reverse in fortune. Shame we're all so dumb and proud.
Two quotes from the article which stood out for me

“When I first saw it, I just stood there for five minutes staring.”

"I can understand that [people thinking it's disrespectful]. But they weren’t using it.”

The former shows the power that true Sacred architecture, especially medieval architecture, can have.

The latter mask an especially good point. People get upset when a Church or some other big 'community building' is being closed. But as the young man above rightly points out, they weren't using it so can't really complain.
I guess I have no sympathy for Western Europe and its church problem. Europe has been losing the Faith for a long time, perhaps centuries. Vatican II was simply a desperate attempt to make the Faith relevant to men who sincerely could not or would not accept outmoded cosmologies, theologies, etc. in light of modernity.  I hate to see these churches being used as skateparks and stuff but honestly, what else can be done other than to sell them to the Orthodox,turn them into museums or simply wreck them and sell the empty lot to the highest bidder?

Vatican II failed miserably at making the faith any more relevant or credible than did the neo Thomists before the Council but at least the pre conciliar era had beauty in architecture and worship. Perhaps all that will save the Church,or what's left of it, is beauty. Maybe that's why theologians like Hans Urs Von Balthasar ( whatever his shortcomings) strike such a chord with people, because he speaks so often of beauty and does so in symbolic and poetic language rather than in abstractions ( the Thomists and neo Thomists) or in banal pedestrian platitudes( the average Novus Ordo ICEL translations,priests  sermons etc.)

We can lament this loss but what can we really do about it? The Renissassance, the French Revolution, the Reformation, Enlightenment philosophy, Darwinian evolution and two World Wars literally destroyed the Faith in Europe.  All that's left to do is to let the dead bury the dead, cut our losses and move on, keeping the Faith wherever we can. We cannot save every church and chapel from destruction, that seems to be a given.  What good is an empty Church anyway?  At least salvage the sacred art, the relics etc.

The only way we can reach people today is through beauty in art, poetry, architecture, symbol etc. Somehow our task after the Council is to reach people creatively yet keeping the content of our Faith intact. I dont have any answers other than to say that I do not think a return to the pre conciliar era or the worst of the post conciliar era is possible or ideal.
Europe has mostly been contracepting and aborting itself below sustainment.  Still, we can't forget the "suicide of Europe" or the effectively entire generation lost to World War 1 or all the carnage of World War two or the decades of Cold War that followed.  Remember that even before that, St. Pius X justified his rather radical reorganization of the Breviary in Divino Afflatu with the premise that the clergy had already seen a reduction in the number of "labourers in the vineyard..."

Another perspective could be that the Fathers at Vatican II saw this coming and were trying to preempt it's effect. As one who disagrees with most of the changes in the liturgy since as well as the proliferation of abuses in the modern Novus Ordo (though I would stipulate I have seen a few reverently and properly celebrated that I would equate with a Low Mass skipping clapping, the 'sign of peace', not-so-extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, etc), I think most of us could agree that it's bad, but who can really say it wouldn't have been worse? 

As far as the answer, what should be done.  They should probably be demolished before turned to profane use but that won't happen. 
The only saving grace in my parish (N.O.; people want a more "jovial/lively" organist) is that most of the parishioners are inter-generational. It also helps that the area is heavily Hispanic, Polish and white working class. The parish has a Polish school that practically preserves the culture of the Polish immigrants finding their way to my part of town. Without the practicing Polish Catholics the parish membership would drop significantly. There are a few new faces here and there, but overall its either you're one of the three ethnic groups above.

The liturgy is fine where I'm at right now, so I'm not complaining how the priests are doing the N.O. In fact, I think they're doing an okay job preaching the Gospel. Some homilies by our main deacon are atrocious -- it's the stuff I could make up in an hour, seriously, without much sweat. What I'm worried about is the parish's "Bible School" curriculum. Sunday mornings at 9:30AM mass is Children's Liturgy, and when it's time for the kids to go to their own "homily" in another part of the church, the organist plays this pathetic "I got this joy joy joy deep down in my heart! Down in my heart! Down in my heart! I got this joy joy joy down in heart TO STAY!" or something like that, all with clapping. It's embarrassing. I have a sick feeling what they're telling the children is anything but some "God wuvz you very mucho! Just they way you are!"

Once I find a place of my own I'm going to join a traditional parish, more orthodox in nature, like St. John Cantius Church.