When the organ goes silent, the congregation moves out and there isn't a prayer left in the building, a church is often left with no choice but to close its doors.
Throughout the city of Jamestown, several abandoned churches can be found. What to do with churches that aren't churches anymore is a question that boggles city officials.
"I'm not sure what the next life would be for a church," said Steve Centi, director of development. "In some cases, they are kind of open span space. They're open, they could probably be converted into some other type of use, but I don't know what the answer is right now for what they could be."
Angelo and Ylsa Giuffre purchased the former First Congregational Church as a home for their production companies, Big Time Productions and The Big Time Players. In the last several months, it has grown into a community center for the arts.
P-J photo by Liz Skoczylas
Centi credits the loss of churches with changes in interests and technology. Additionally, a variety of religions have come to fruition.
"Society changed, cultures changed, people had other interests that kind of took them away from spending that entire day - and I'm not saying that applies to everyone - but I think there are so many things that take people's attention from spending the entire day at the church," Centi said.
When many of the churches in Jamestown began, they were considered neighborhood churches. People in that neighborhood would be able to walk to church and spend the day worshipping. However, as Jamestown grew and spread out, Centi said churches did the same. Instead of neighborhood churches, people began attending community churches.
"At one time, you're dealing with a building that might have been filled, the cost of operating them might have been more reasonable," Centi said. "Now you're reaching a point where, even though they don't pay taxes, they still have operational stuff that might not be covered by the sizes of the current congregations."
With community churches came additional expansion, as different religious groups moved into the area.
"I think there are a lot of different denominations that have popped up, and it's kind of diluted people. Some of these congregations have lost size," Centi said.
With population loss, churches sometimes are unable to maintain daily operations, as donations become less. Additionally, with the evolution of technology, people have different interests, which can affect the lifespan of a church.
"I just think that people are distracted, people have different priorities. I think that might be the bottom line," Centi said.
BACK ON THE TAX ROLLS
Once a church makes the decision to close its doors for good, it is no longer a tax-exempt property.
"Once it ceases to function as a church, which was the reason for its tax-exempt status, then it goes on the tax rolls," Centi said. "If they don't have the money to maintain it, if they don't have the money to start paying taxes on it, you run into a situation where then they have to decide how to dispose of the property."
In some instances, a property will go up in a city tax sale. For Randall Holcomb, assessor, sometimes the tax sale is the first time the city hears about a church no longer functioning as a church.
"We don't always hear it immediately when some church ends their services. They don't rush to us to tell us, because then they know they'll lose their tax-exempt status," Holcomb said.
To become a tax-exempt property, an organization, such as a church, must provide the city with certifications, constitutions and other paperwork, proving its status. Likewise, to return to the tax roll, there is paperwork showing that the building is no longer being used for its intended purpose.
"It is usually reported to us that the church is no longer holding services, and no longer having religious functions there," Holcomb said. "It's all a verification process. The responsibility is all up to the owner of the property. Anytime we ask for that verification, they will supply it."
Once a church is returned to the tax roll, Holcomb said the owner of the building still has the opportunity to grieve their case to the board of assessment review, just as anyone else would. However, once the property is back on the tax roll, the bill will be coming.
"Just like a residential property owner, or a commercial owner, they get a tax bill twice a year," Holcomb said.
FUTURE OF CHURCHES
"You have the dilemma of a building that is somewhat unique in its construction, its layout, its architecture, its use, that may cause difficulties in terms of becoming something different," Centi said. "It's like a car dealership. You have a car dealership that moves out, what's the next use for it? It's specialized in its nature. Obviously churches are specialized in architecture, use, historic use."
Off the top of his head, Centi listed several churches in Jamestown that are no longer functioning as churches. One, on the corner of McKinley Avenue and Charles Street, was recently purchased at a tax sale. Although the shape of the building is questionable, it is on the historic registry.
"You have now a situation where it stopped functioning as a church, it lost its tax-exempt status, it didn't pay its taxes, whoever was responsible for it, and now it's in the hands of someone else," Centi said. "I don't know what the future is for that."
Because of the longevity of churches and when they were initially built, they often do have historic significance. Because of this, there are often strict requirements in place for the building's next life. Sometimes, they may be converted into living space.
"They're not easy to convert. In Randolph, they converted one into residential buildings. But, then again, we're not really promoting development of new residential units without getting rid of existing residential units," Centi said.
Centi cited the Spire Theater, site of the former First Congregational Church, as a building that has been successfully converted by a private developer. However, when a church goes under, often it is just a waiting game for the city to see what will happen next.
"I haven't seen any churches demolished. That's never really been a target. I don't think they've reached a point where the condition is so bad that they become a public safety hazard," Centi said. "That's not saying that that couldn't happen at some point in the future."
In January, the First Congregational Church entered the city tax roll for the first time in its existence, in the form of Spire Theater. The theater offers a look at the opportunities a church has when it is no longer a church.
Angelo and Ylsa Giuffre purchased the building as a home for their production companies, Big Time Productions and The Big Time Players. In the last several months, it has grown into a community center for the arts.
Angelo Giuffre said he has always been fascinated by the architecture of churches. The couple said the First Congregational Church became available to them at a perfect time.
"The timing kind of just lined up perfectly for this. Before that, I never seriously considered buying a church," Angelo said.
The Giuffres said that as the congregation of the church grew older, membership dwindled to the point where they sold the building. However, the original congregation still meets, as do several others.
"We have three different churches who meet here, and we have four services a week," Angelo Giuffre said. "To the general public, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of church activity going on, but there's probably more church activity than anything else."
Because a church is no longer the primary function of the building, the Giuffres do pay taxes on it.
"We are a for-profit entity, which is also kind of a nice thing for the community," Ylsa Giuffre said. "We are contributing to the tax base. Here's a large building that has not been on the tax roll, ever, and now it is."
Aside for church services, the 11,754-square-foot property plays home to a variety of people and events. The building has a tenant in its attached apartment. It also provides office space for a variety of artists and young professionals. It offers theater productions, art shows, movie nights, weddings, banquets and more. And, in the future, the Giuffres would like to see a dance studio and baby-sitting options.