April 9, 2018

As worshiping patterns shift, more CT churches are showing up on the sales block

HBJ Photo | Greg Bordonaro
HBJ Photo | Greg Bordonaro
Among Connecticut church properties listed for sale is the Archdiocese of Hartford's buildings at 121-125 Market Street (main photo above) in downtown Hartford, former home to Catholic Charities. Other churches for sale include properties in (starting top right): Wallingford, Vernon, Mystic, Hartford's North End and South Windsor.
Photos | loopnet
Photo | Contributed
The Market Street church in downtown Hartford for sale at $200,000.

The building housing Hartford's Faith Congregational Church, one of the city's oldest African-American congregations, is for sale at $1 million — the latest in a growing chorus of current and former Connecticut houses of worship moving into their next phase of ownership and operation.

The 24,650-square-foot, 500-seat church at 2030 N. Main St., in the North End, is one of nearly a dozen African-American and Hispanic churches along a one-mile stretch of North Main Street, known to locals as "church row.'' The 147-year-old sanctuary on 0.88 acres is being offered to an "investor or owner/user.''

"Our building is very large and our need to continue in ministry as a congregation has us looking for a smaller venue from which we can do ministry in the future," Faith's pastor, Rev. Stephen W. Camp, said via email. "We want to get right-sized, so as to continue ministry into the next generation."

According to real-estate listings data from CoStar Group, there are 19 church or religious properties for sale in Connecticut. Most are part of the Archdiocese of Hartford and owned by each parish independently.

The uptick in church properties for sale reflects the growing financial pressures many churches — regardless of denomination — face. It also reflects, some observers say, a steady shift in Americans' attitudes about religion.

"The shape of Christianity in America is changing,'' said Harold Attridge, a New Testament professor and former dean at Yale Divinity School. "Demographics and the numbers of the faithful are declining. What we're seeing is the development of a more secular society."

"Many churches,'' Attridge said, "are thinking about how to continue their missions, how to reach out to people and welcome them to their congregations.''

While Protestant churches have experienced membership and attendance declines, evangelical churches' style of worship, less bound to Protestant rites and traditions, have grown in appeal, Attridge said.

Even with their exemption from local property taxes and state and federal income taxes, observers say today's churches often struggle to generate enough revenue to cover heat and electric bills, and payroll, particularly in the face of slowing church attendance, hence collections. Sometimes, selling buildings or other assets is the only financial option for congregations, officials say.

Selling a church, however, can be tough. Like homes and commercial-industrial buildings, worship sanctuaries tend to be built for a singular use, sometimes containing one-off features, such as baptism pools, pipe organs and balconies, that make them less suitable as offices or apartments. Many also have parking lots, lawns and greenspaces.

Rev. Harry Riggs, executive minister for American Baptist Churches of Connecticut, a collective of 119 Baptist congregations in the state, said shrinking attendance and collections is problematic for his members because, unlike the Catholic Church, Baptists and most religious denominations do not combine or share financial and other resources.

"If a Baptist church doesn't have money,'' Riggs said, "it's because that church doesn't have money. We can't go to a central clearinghouse for funding.''

Archdiocese sales

According to church officials, the Archdiocese of Hartford conducted over the last three years an extensive strategic review of its church assets, worshipper attendance and its corps of priests, said Paul Connery, the archdiocese's director of property and assets.

The result is that some of its churches and church schools were closed or consolidated. The archdiocese today counts 127 parishes down from 212 before the mergers and closures, he said.

The archdiocese designated 26 of its parish buildings for closure, Connery said. Of those, 10 are listed for sale or are under contract to be sold.

Three other archdiocese properties have already sold, Connery said. In Ansonia, a Pentecostal congregation paid $585,000 for one of its former churches there. In New Haven, a Chabad rabbinic school acquired its former St. Brendan Roman Catholic Church property for $1.5 million.

In Hartford, the parish that previously owned St. Michael's Catholic Church, on Clark Street in the North End, sold its building to a private buyer, and merged the congregation into St. Justin's Catholic Church, on Blue Hills Avenue, also in the North End.

Connery noted that the sale proceeds from the St. Michael's deal went to the coffers of St. Justin's, not to the archdiocese.

"People think the archdiocese owns all these properties and that the money goes into our pocket,'' he said.

More archdiocese property sales are likely. In East Hartford, the town is under contract to acquire the former Blessed Sacrament Church for $900,000, which it will use to replace the town's senior center.

The 18,489-square-foot building at 15 Millbrook Drive opened in 1975 and is a contemporary, open structure that will allow the town to "create a space rather than try to remake a space that has small segregated classroom spaces," East Hartford Mayor Marcia Leclerc said. "The building also offers the opportunity to expand the noon meal program for seniors and improve the program's quality.''

In downtown Hartford, two surplus archdiocese buildings totaling about 12,225 square feet that date to the early 19th century at 121-125 Market St. are for sale at $200,000. A deed restriction covers one of the buildings because it covers a grave.

Listing broker Alexis Augsberger, vice president at CBRE/New England, said the low asking price reflects needed maintenance and improvements to the buildings. Formerly a Lutheran church, Catholic Charities at one time had a refugee center in one of the buildings, and a Catholic book store in the other.

"We've gotten a lot of interest from people,'' Augsberger said, since listing both at the start of this year.

A potential damper to selling the remaining archdiocese properties, Connery said, is that the church reserves the right not to sell to buyers who would use them for "sordid purposes,'' such as a strip club.

Not an easy sell

Rick Chozick, whose Hartford brokerage in recent weeks debuted the Faith Congregational Church listing, says selling houses of worship is a challenge because their special-purpose layouts, small acreages and limited parking do not render them easily convertible to other uses, like office space, apartments or retail, he said.

Chozick Realty for a period several years ago was listing broker for the vacant former Congregation Ados Israel synagogue on Pearl Street in downtown Hartford. TheaterWorks uses the building for storage.

Typically, the ideal buyers of church properties are other existing church congregations, Chozick said.

"We take on a lot of challenging projects,'' he said. "We are upfront with our clients that [churches for sale] is a limited market. But we're good at marketing our properties."

Faith Congregational was born when worshipers from two of the city's African-American congregations — one dating to 1819 — consolidated. In 1954, worshipers bought their current home, built on Main Street in 1871, says Faith's online history.

"About 70 years ago, Faith Church was faced with the same challenge,'' Camp said. "This we believe is our time to act faithfully embracing the future, concerning our building needs."

CORRECTION: TheaterWorks uses the vacant synagogue on Hartford's Pearl Street for storage, but does not own the building. St. Michael's Catholic Church was sold to a private buyer. A previous version misstated the ownership and buyer of both buildings.

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