By H. Harrison Coleman
In the summer of 2019, I was lucky enough to go on a vacation to Québec. In the capital city, I visited a beautiful church that was not a church. Le Maison de la littérature was an abandoned Protestant church not far from the city center, and as the name suggests, has been renovated from a center of worship into a modern library. The church, though it has been renovated, has kept its stone facades, bell towers and beautiful stained glass windows.
The renovation was not a story of modernism invading sacred religious ground, but one of the present embracing the past: ever since the Québécois Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, where social democracy and secularism overtook the Catholic Church and its doctrine as the mainstays of political and social life in Québec, church attendance plummeted, and many beautiful churches closed in the province. Le Maison de la littérature, formerly the Wesley Temple, home to Québec’s few Protestants, held out until the 1990s, but after a few years of abandonment, it was bought and refurbished into the bustling public library it is today.
Though this might be considered a niche story, and the result of an isolated, purely French Canadian social change, the story of Le Maison de la littérature is one that is increasingly American.
In 1980, the vast minority of Americans––just 7%––were religiously unaffiliated. In 1990, it was 8%. In 2018, it was a whopping 23% of Americans who identified with no religion. This phenomenon has been called “the rise of the nones.”
The “nones” is a very broad category. It encompasses everyone from atheists to agnostics, from people who are “spiritual but not religious” as The Atlantic categorizes them, to religious people who just don’t go out to observe their faith in places of worship. In short, practicing religious people, regardless of their specific religion, denomination or categorization, are on the decline, whereas all the systems of beliefs that do not include going to a specific building to celebrate and cultivate that faith are on the upswing.
More specifically, Christianity in the U.S. is becoming less widespread. As of an October 2019 Pew Research study, Catholicism, Protestantism, and other denominations (Baptism, Methodism, Presbyterianism and more) were declining, and they were not being replaced by minority religions but instead were losing ground to the nonreligious. Additionally, church attendance is on a massive decline, according to a Gallup News report. In 1970, 70% of all Americans were regular churchgoers. Now, it’s under 50%.
The church should not expect a revival anytime soon. According to that same Gallup report, the decline in church attendance has largely been spearheaded by the youth. Millennials only had a 42% church attendance average, compared to the national 50%. Though it’s more difficult to find the attendance numbers for the newest generation of adults (or soon-to-be-adults), Generation Z, it can be assumed that this trend will continue to worsen for churches: atheism among Gen. Z is more than double the general population’s rate, and only 59% identify as Christian.
This poses the question: what happens to the churches? Not the Church––the groups of people that come to make up the social framework of America’s religions––but what of the physical buildings? Québec got a taste of what rapid secularization means for the beautiful centers of worship now in danger of being abandoned. At the same time, the Francophone province and the former church-turned-library in the center of Old Québec show us the way to deal with the sudden outbreak of abandoned centers of worship.
In the United States, there are an estimated 380,000 churches, from the soaring cathedrals in city centers, to ramshackle one-room temples in Appalachia and the Great Plains. That number, from 2018, is probably incorrect now, as 6,000 to 10,000 churches close in the United States per year. It’s not that churches are in danger of being closed; that reality is already upon us. The question remains: what to do with the corpses of these buildings?
First off, the answer is not to bulldoze them and build something else. Sure, that might be the case for some exceptionally ugly and inconveniently-placed buildings. Though this is impossible to quantify, I believe that more care, more personal and tender design is put into centers of worship, resulting in more beautiful and community-focused buildings. Beauty can be found in the churches of even the most remote places. Take my current residence of Leavenworth, Kansas: this town is far from the center of the world. That being said, Leavenworth has no shortage of beautiful churches, as I’m certain similar towns do. I should know all about the eye-pleasing Leavenworth churches––I spent Election Day 2020 volunteering as a poll worker in one. So, what is to be done with the huge number of dead or soon-to-be-dead churches?
The answers that people have already come up with vary. Some are converted into modern homes. Others have been converted not only in the physical sense but also in the religious sense. In Buffalo, New York, two abandoned Catholic churches were given a new shot at life when they were converted into an Islamic mosque and a Buddhist temple.
Some of the luckier churches can get by on looks and history alone; churches can be tourism centers, pulling in revenue and creating jobs for their local communities. Again, I have first-hand experience with this––part of the reason I was in Québec was to visit the gorgeous Basilique de Notre-Dame de Montréal, as well as the jaw-dropping beauty of the Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royale, also in Montréal. Both of these churches have transitioned gracefully from centers of worship and faith to centers of history and culture, not to mention revenue for the communities they're in.
Alternatively, White Rock Methodist in Dallas, Texas, changed its role in community life even before it was abandoned. The ministers allowed for the creation of an artisan workshop, an education center that specializes in giving immigrants the opportunity to learn English and a yoga studio in the church, all while the congregation continued meeting on Sundays.
The U.S. is making its way through a rocky transition to secularism. Though the faithful will not disappear entirely from the U.S., the beautiful relics of a more religious era will, with any luck, transition from the center of the community to the center of the community in a dozen different ways. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a picnic under a stunning cathedral, take a dance class under soaring spires or read books in the light of stained glass than have it all bulldozed to make room for yet another strip of restaurants?