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Historic Religious Properties

The Historic Religious Properties Initiative began in 2004 when the Boston Archdiocese announced the impending closure of many of their parishes and the disposition of their property. Tasked with investigating how the preservation community could aid the Archdiocese and congregations in recognizing the historic importance of many threatened churches, parish houses, schools and convents, Preservation Massachusetts (PM) compiled the Religious Properties Toolkit. This document provides a framework for issues like how to determine a property’s significance or how to sell the property while at the same time maximizing its preservation, as well as provides case study examples specific to Massachusetts.

Religious buildings play a fundamental role in their communities: they define our local history, are an important source of our artistic patrimony and provide vital space for many local social services, in addition to their religious impacts. Yet these historic buildings are increasingly vulnerable to deterioration and loss. The continuing shift of people and wealth to the suburbs, the shortage of clergy, and decades of deferred maintenance of buildings are all factors that may adversely affect historic urban houses of worship.

For those religious properties that remain open, pressures continue to be placed on strained budgets to address the maintenance and upkeep of the older, historic buildings. For those properties that must be closed, viable opportunities exist to reuse the historic church buildings in a manner that will promote economic development, provide housing and strengthen community ties.

The Unique Needs of Historic Religious Properties

Church buildings are special buildings, but their restoration and reuse call for many of the techniques and processes applicable to all historically and architecturally significant structures. Preservation Massachusetts has prepared a toolkit, Historic Religious Properties Toolkit (2004) to address those needs, providing solutions and answers for issues such as:

  • How do we determine the historic and architectural significance of our properties, and what do we do with this information?

  • How do we assess the physical condition of our buildings, and how do we prioritize the needs?

  • What financial help is available to us to encourage appropriate renovation and repair?

  • Who are the specialists – architects, engineers, craftsmen – that can help us in our restoration?

And, if the properties are to be sold,

  • What are the regulatory barriers to sale and disposition – local zoning, historic property review, state and federally-mandated consultation processes?

  • How should we prepare a “Request for Proposals” that will maximize the preservation of our historic buildings?

  • What are the financial incentives available to assist us in the reuse project?

  • How do we engage the community in the project – and win their support?

  • What are existing examples of successful adaptive use of historic religious properties?

We hope that by providing our research, case studies, and model templates for documents, our toolkit will provide answers and a framework for sensitive restoration and disposition.

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