Their nearly 100-year-old church building needed $300,000 in repairs.
Parishioners at the St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church in Liberty stood strong for many decades, through social change, two fires and a tornado. The price this time was just too high. The small group of faithful who still called St. Luke home could not afford the cost of fixing their building, so they disbanded a 140-year-old congregation.
That’s how the sign announcing services for the St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church, which had served Liberty for more than 140 years, ended up a twisted piece of metal atop a pile of limestone rubble this fall.
Church buildings are built with hope and purpose. They become more than just places for people.
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Often, they are referred to as homes. But when those homes are outgrown, outdated or unaffordable, selling and repurposing the buildings can be tricky.
The structures can find new life, but the costs for renovating them often run high. Some survive through innovative partnerships and alternative business uses; others face the wrecking ball. In a time when people are heading to places like stores or warehouse spaces to attend services, many old church buildings dotting the city are struggling to find new use to keep their history strong.
In Gardner, the former Sacred Heart Catholic Church is up for sale. The congregation built a new sanctuary a few blocks away about eight years ago.
Although the church in Johnson County continued to use the old space for daily Mass and other events, a freshly built parish hall at the new location meant it was time for the old site to go on the market.
Leon Roberts, the director of real estate and construction for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, says the property has been on the market for about a year, but they are just now getting serious lookers. He says a church property can be hard to sell, even one that sits near a business district like the site in Gardner.
“Typically, there are all kinds of issues that come up related to the age of the structure and making it conform to current day codes and accessibility,” Roberts said.
The Sacred Heart church building dates to 1910. When such a building serves a community for so long, sentimental factors are involved in the decision to move to a new location and sell. The process usually takes years.
In the case of Sacred Heart, the new parish changed names and combined congregations with a parish in Edgerton. The new congregation is called Divine Mercy.
Selling a church does not happen very often in the archdiocese, which includes congregations through a large portion of eastern Kansas. Roberts has been in his position 16 years, and says Sacred Heart in Gardner is only the third church he remembers going up for sale: One in Kansas City, Kan., had to be torn down; another in the same area sold to a developer who has yet to do anything with it.
The Gardner church is near a major business district. Roberts says that because of the desirable location, developers may decide to demolish the church structure and create a new development.
By the time a church building gets to the selling point, many possibilities open up. However, the diocese does have some limits in its contracts. The owners cannot be planning to open something that would be contrary to church teaching, like an adult bookstore or a strip club.
“It’s important because it would suggest we were willing to ignore our church teaching just in the name of money,” Roberts said. “These are places that have a soul.”
Near downtown Overland Park, the soul of the First Church of Christ, Scientist is still evident, even to people who are not quite aware they are walking into a former church when they take their pet to the vet.
Veterinarian Jill Sandler finds the former church to be a perfect home for her Heartland Animal Clinic at 7821 Marty St. This year marks her 30th anniversary in the building, which has changed very little since it was a church. She says the architecture, which includes soft green light from the stained glass windows and original arched doorways at the entry of the building, seems to make the animals feel more at ease.
“People and their pets feel a lot more comfortable here,” Sandler said. “They feel like they are coming into a home.”
The church structure dates to the 1940s, when congregants build their own house of worship. They met in a basement structure on the site as early as 1927. In 1963, the congregation outgrew the space and sold the clinic to another veterinarian, who retrofitted the large room that had been used as space for church services with patient rooms.
The rest of the interior architecture of the church remains the same. The former reading room is now the reception area. The former church vestibule is a waiting space.
When Sandler first took over the practice in 1986, Christian Science practitioners would come in and ask to go into the former reading room of the church to pray.
“It was not something that I had anticipated, but it was something I was prepared to allow them to do,” Sandler said.
Often, congregations never really lose their attachment to the buildings where parishioners have lived so much faith life.
The newest owner of the old St. James Catholic Church north of the downtown square in Liberty served as an altar boy there in the late 1970s.
The building has not served the Catholic parish in 35 years. The congregation moved out to a larger space in 1981 and sold the church building. The structure had a run through several failed businesses, including a bed and breakfast and a spa, as well as another church.
It reverted to bank ownership and sat vacant for about three years.
John and Carey Weir decided to buy the building last year and renovate it into an events venue. Carey Weir said her husband had wanted to purchase the church for a while.
“The timing worked out. It’s been for my husband’s family very sentimental, getting the building back into the hands of someone the church meant something to,” she said.
The Weirs decided the church building would be a great events venue and a good complement to Carey Weir’s catering business. She hopes to eventually have the commercial kitchen of Salt Catering running out of the location.
At this point the couple have already spent months on renovations, which included taking out partitions to re-open what had originally been the sanctuary of the church into a large space for events.
They created a bridal room out of what was left of the former choir loft and installed bathrooms among other needed repairs and updates to the building. They also brought back the building’s historic connection as a church, calling it the St. James Event Center.
Lacey Dutro and Matt Weaver of Kansas City, North, were one of the first couples to marry in the newly renovated space at 342 N. Water St.
The fact that the building used to be a church was less important to them than the rustic feel of the brick walls and the large windows in the space.
“We didn’t really want to get married in a church because we really didn’t like the look of a lot of them, but this place doesn’t look like a church,” Weaver said. “I like the look of this place and it worked out fine.”
People are not always willing or do not have the resources to make the often expensive renovations needed to some of the old church buildings. So, sometimes those old church buildings just don’t make it. That is what happened recently to another historic church just a few blocks away from the St. James site.
Helen Benton Harris, the former pastor of the St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church, says she tried hard to keep her small congregation going strong at the site.
Church members held an open house last year to celebrate the congregation’s 140th anniversary. At the time, they were trying to find a way to renovate their social hall in the basement. That’s when they discovered a damaged ceiling, an infestation of critters and other problems that meant it was not safe to not meet in the church building anymore.
Former church treasurer Ed Collins said they brought two structural engineers into the church who estimated $300,000 for repairs on the building. That was just too much money for the small congregation.
“We can hardly come up with the light bill. There was no way in the world we could come up with $300,000,” Collins said.
The congregation tried to get creative, starting a Go Fund Me account back in the spring. It raised about $4,700 in three months with donations by 19 people.
Harris arranged for a separate location for the congregation to worship; another church in town agreed to open their doors for services. None of the congregants seemed interested or able to get to that location, however. With the building gone, the heart of the congregation went with it.
“A lot of people were unhappy about not being there anymore, but we were not able to do anything about it,” Collins said. “The people in the neighborhood let us know they really didn’t want the church to dissolve.”
The ownership of the church building reverted to the denomination. The building was torn down this month.
In Kearney, the community was able to save a Methodist church structure many years ago by finding developers willing to turn it into retail use. Unlike the St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Kearney building was on a major thoroughfare.
Charles Small is a commercial Realtor with Reece & Nichols and a partner in that project. The former church is now part of a retail area called Old Church Plaza.
Small says the sanctuary in that space was of a moderate size and easily converted.
And the community supported the project.
“They didn’t want a vacant building,” Small said. “They wanted the best use for the properties they wanted to see growth and development that had not had anything in several years.”
Small points to the challenges of selling a church that has been added onto through several years.
Often the price point on the church makes it too expensive for a newer congregation, and the location, in residential rather than retail areas, makes it undesirable for other repurposing.
“Startup churches are always on the lookout for buildings, but cost is often a problem once they get to a certain level,” Small said. “Where the church grew in their space and then they added on again and again, who’s going to be able to use that kind of space in the future? Typically you have a size concern. A startup church doesn’t usually have the money to move into those kinds of properties.”
One option for struggling congregations to save their buildings is to merge with a new startup church. In merging, a dwindling older congregation does not have to close the doors of its building, and the newer church does not have to face the expenses of building or buying something new.
The Northgate Baptist Church on Vivion Road recently merged with Briarcliff Church in this kind of a partnership.
Northgate, which had been around since the late 1950s, had a large building, and the congregation had dwindled in recent years.
Briarcliff Church, which began just a few years ago as a small congregation meeting in a retail space, was growing quickly and looking for a new location.
Vernon Armitage, the current pastor of Briarcliff Church, saw Northgate’s challenge. The two churches decided to merge.
“We knew that Northgate was not going to make it without some help,” Armitage said. “We felt like coming in and helping with a church was an important thing to do. It would have been easier to go somewhere else. Merging takes a lot of energy, to bring those two church families together.”
On Labor Day weekend, they opened as the Briarcliff Church Northgate Campus at 800 N.E. Vivion Road. The church building, which had dwindled to holding only about 70 or 80 congregants for services, had nearly 450 people there in the first weekend of the newly merged church. The efforts have resulted in a sanctuary filled with people, and children’s rooms buzzing with activity again.
“The people at Northgate have to be commended, because I know that was a very difficult thing for them,” Armitage said. “My goal was to see the life of God’s glory come back into this place and get it to thrive and serve the community again.”