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Old church buildings a tough sell

| Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009

Johanna Yoho knew the Pittsburgh church she attended since childhood couldn't hang on much longer.

With membership and collections dwindling, Mt. Zion Lutheran Church on the North Side merged with another congregation in 2006. Afterward, a consultant recommended conducting services in the newer and larger Brighton Heights Lutheran Church and putting Mt. Zion up for sale.

"When we hand the keys over to the (buyer), that will be bittersweet," said Yoho, 48, of Observatory Hill, who was treasurer of Mt. Zion.

About 70 churches have changed hands in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Mercer, Washington and Westmoreland counties since 2007, according to RealSTATs, a South Side-based real estate information company.

Dozens more across Western Pennsylvania have posted for-sale signs.

"Selling churches is not an easy thing," said Tom Conroy, a sales representative with Howard Hanna Commercial, who is handling the sale of the Mt. Zion church building to another congregation.

But it's a sign of the times.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg is listing six churches for sale as a result of church closings announced by Bishop Lawrence Brandt in 2008, according to diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt.

Asking prices for the former church buildings were not released.

"Each successor parish named last fall for each church that was closed is responsible for the sale of the former church buildings. All assets and liabilities from the sale also go to the successor parishes," Zufelt said.

St. Bede Church in Bovard, Hempfield Township, was built by immigrant mine workers in the early 1900s, according to the diocese.

The church, which was closed in 2008, was sold recently to the Laurel Highland Presbyterian Church of America for $150,000, according to RealSTATs.

The former St. Nicholas Church on Route 28 may be sold to Lamar Advertising, parish officials said. The parish said it reached an "agreement in principle" to sell the 108-year-old church, which closed in 2004.

Restoring buildings that were constructed 100 or 200 years ago can be costly. A roof could cost $50,000; one stained-glass window could cost $20,000, according to preservationists.

"Smaller churches have a difficult time surviving the aging process," said Danny Muzyka, president and founder of Service Realty, which handled the sale of hundreds of churches in Texas, Colorado, California, Washington and Arizona.

Many church buildings are sold to other churches, but sometimes they're converted to schools, day care centers, art galleries or private residences. One notable example is the former St. John the Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, which reopened in 1996 as a pub and restaurant, the Church Brew Works. That deal touched off a controversy and resulted in new policies at the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"We were assured that all religious items were removed before the sale. They weren't," said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, diocesan spokesman.

In addition to increased inspections and inventorying of the contents of church buildings, sales agreements now give the Catholic diocese a right of first refusal if a parish sells a property to a nonfaith group, he said. Twelve churches in the Pittsburgh diocese have been sold since 2007.

Most churches prefer to sell buildings to other churches or for compatible uses, but at some point, it becomes a matter of dollars and cents.

"There's often a sentimental attraction. A lot of people have been baptized there, married there," said Ned Doran, executive vice president of GVA Oxford, a Pittsburgh-based commercial real estate company. "But the upkeep on older properties is phenomenal."

Mt. Zion Lutheran Church, built in 1900, once served as headquarters for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Lutheran Church, said the Rev. Brian Shirey, its pastor.

"If I had the money, I'd turn it into a museum. It's a historical site for Lutheranism in Pittsburgh," Shirey said.

Closing the church saddened parishioners, but the church is more than a building, said Yoho.

"If you get that attached to a building, you don't understand what we're here for," she said.

Staff writer Paul Peirce contributed to this story.

Additional Information:

Churches for sale

Westmoreland County

St. Timothy Church, Smithton

St. Charles Borromeo Church, Sutersville

Forty Martyrs Church, Trauger

Harvest Baptist Church, New Kensington

Fayette County

Holy Trinity Church, Connellsville

Holy Spirit Church, Fayette City

St. Albert Church, Palmer

Pittsburgh area

Refuge Temple Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Homewood

Mt. Zion Lutheran Church complex, North Side

Beechview Church

Our Savior Lutheran Church, Mt. Lebanon

St. Mary's Church, Duquesne

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