Eco-Theology in Parish Consolidations

When used along with the word “parish”, the word “consolidation” has a long list of negative connotations. Other words such as “loss”, “grief”, “anger” and “betrayal” are often mentioned in the same breath. So to try to associate the term “eco-theology” with “consolidation” may seem like quite a stretch. But before we discuss how those two words can be very much related, let us first look at the place of eco-theology in the church.

Eco-theology is essentially the combination of sustainable principles of living with a spiritual motivation. While the term eco-theology has been around since the seventies, the principles of this philosophy go back much further. As far back as 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote that “Learning the meaning of creation in our daily lives will help us to live holier lives.” To learn the meaning of creation is to be reconciled to all of creation, to be committed to responsible stewardship of God’s creation. In his 1990 message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, Pope John Paul II was even more specific in his call for responsible stewardship when he stated that “Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life…. Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its lifestyle.” He included the reminder that “…a true education in responsibility entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior.”

Sustainable living can sometimes take a radical change in lifestyle. It means taking an approach to living, building and consuming the gifts of our environment in a way that does not jeopardize the needs of those who will come after us. Parish consolidations, by necessity, always require sacrifice on the part of some, if not all, affected parishioners. But if at least part of this sacrifice can be seen as part of living sustainably, it may lessen the pain just a bit.

Parish consolidations offer opportunities to practice all three principles of sustainable living: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. There are many ways in which people can reduce their impact on the environment. The one that applies most to parish consolidations is the reduction of the natural resources used to operate their facilities. These facilities are often no longer appropriate to the needs of their users. Churches that were built to seat over a thousand people and now have only forty worshipers become more of a burden than an asset to the parish. Old schools, convents and rectories that are no longer being used or are being significantly under-utilized are still being maintained by parishes. Churches where only one Mass is said each Sunday stand 500 yards away from another church that is being used for no more than a different hour on the same day. One consolidated parish in upstate New York wound up with twenty-one buildings with an annual energy cost of $117,000. If they were to consolidate their facilities to just those needed to meet the needs of the parishioners, they could save almost $100,000 in annual energy costs. Not only is that a great deal of money, it is also a great deal of fossil fuel that will no longer be burned every year. Is using so many natural and financial resources on buildings with such limited use responsible stewardship when other options are available? No wonder Pope John Paul II asked us to take a serious look at our lifestyle!

The good news is that the reduction of parish facilities does not necessarily mean the loss of such facilities. Such facilities can often be reused. Reusing a building can be as simple as finding another use or user for the building. This concept has been popular for years as a way to bring unused convents or rectories back to life. They have been used to house groups of clergy or religious not necessarily associated with the parish or for temporary housing for refugees, victims of domestic violence, unwed mothers or homeless people or for other types of housing. Many parishes that have closed their full time schools have been using those classrooms for religious education classes. In the case of church buildings, many such buildings have had new life breathed into them by a new congregation that either shares, rents or buys the building from the original owner.

These concepts of reuse are nothing new and do not require too much imagination to implement. When a building can no longer fulfill its original purpose, it can be converted to another use. Conversion of a building to another use or occupancy is often referred to as “adaptive reuse”. Adaptive reuse has saved many an historic building from the wrecking ball. The simplest buildings to convert are smaller buildings such as convents and rectories, which have frequently been converted to office or meeting space. Many an abandoned school building has also been converted into office space or apartments or condominiums. Reusing large church buildings is often a bigger challenge but there have been many success stories. Some of the more successful examples include:

  • Sanctuary Lofts – twelve high-end condominiums in an 1889 former Methodist Episcopal Church in Denver, CO
  • McColl Center for Visual Art – a state-of-the-art facility for artists-in-residence in the 1926/27 former Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC
  • King Center Charter School – an early childhood educational center in the 1891 former St. Mary of the Sorrows Church in Buffalo, NY
  • Graduate Health Systems Corporate Headquarters – hi-tech, professional offices in the 1881 former Church of the New Jerusalem in Philadelphia, PA
  • Centro Familiar Guadalupano – a cultural center specifically focused on the Latino and youth community in the 1896/97 former St. Vitus Catholic Church in Chicago, IL

These and other similar projects have kept important, historic church buildings as active parts of the community and, in many cases, added to the community by meeting the needs of residents.

If, in the worst case scenario, there is no longer a viable use for a building, its demolition need not be a total loss. New demolition methods have been developed that consist of disassembling buildings, rather than knocking them down and carting the debris off to a landfill. Such “deconstruction” allows many parts of the building to be reused in other buildings. Religious artifacts such as stained glass windows and altars are routinely removed from church buildings before deconstruction starts. The “Green Movement” has also created a growing market for all types of salvaged building materials, ranging from carved wood paneling to doors to plumbing and electrical fixtures, all of which can be reused in new or renovates churches or other buildings. Once these materials have been removed, a de-construction contractor can carefully pick the building apart, pulling out both wood and steel beams that can be reused or recycled, salvaging bricks from unreinforced walls, copper from roofs, piping and wiring and many other building materials suitable for either reuse or recycling. Even concrete slabs and foundation walls can be ground up to be used as fill material or as aggregate in new concrete. These are all great ways to reduce the impact of demolition on the environment.

No one ever wants to lose a building that has been a central part of the community and people’s spiritual lives but sometimes such loss is inevitable. While eco-theology is certainly not a motivation for parish consolidation, parishes that already subscribe to the principles of eco-theology may be more willing to explore the sustainability benefits of consolidation. If looked at from the point of view of taking responsibility for our environment, it can be one of the more positive aspects of parish consolidation.

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