In the recent Places in Peril nominations here at the Trust, there were 4 rural churches in need of salvation. Ironic? well, the stories were similar and all too familiar. Ward’s Chapel held it’s last service in 1991 after a dwindling congregation, most of whom have moved away, passed on, or become Jehovah’s witnesses. In Adairsville, the 1908 First Christian Church building “serves as an anchor” for the historic properties in that part of town but the congregation moved to a new sanctuary in 2002 only using this building for special occasions. At least they still use it and even have a church committee set up to monitor the building’s needs and repairs. Over in Jenkins County, a rural congregation abandoned their 1919 building when a new sanctuary was built in 2008 despite having received and used a Georgia Heritage Grant 10 years earlier significantly repair the roof and roof structures. Even though they salvaged the pews, and someone took the windows, there is still a hope of restoring the building itself. Only in Locust Grove was a nomination not abandoned. Georgia’s first Catholic church languishes from lack of funds but still holds a monthly service for the small congregation.
The big question though is what to do with these churches once they have been rehabilitated? Many have been abandoned as worship spaces, and are no longer needed as such, so they must be put to a new use. Some nominators expressed a hope to attract tourism to the area, or use as an event space, noble ideas, but when you’re in backwoods Georgia it’s hard to call them practical. We need new uses, people with an imagination, and still we’re not going to be able to save them all.
Like I said, it’s not a new phenomenon, just an ever growing one. flickr and facebook groups abound dedicated to rural and abandoned places of worship. There is something beautiful and sad in any abandoned building but churches, their symbolism and purity, the rites they’ve witnessed and represent, are particularly poignant in their dereliction. Weighty with meaning, with hope and heartbreak and love, they can grip our hearts as tightly as the vines that now scale their walls.
But enough poetry. What can we do with these buildings? I mean really??
Several old churches in the country and towns (like Athens) have been turned into residences. In Athens, I remember a former Episcopal church whose pews are cleared out for yoga, tai chi and community events. Here in Atlanta, churches rent their sanctuaries to bands for practice space and even, yes, now we’re talking, aerial dance and trapeze. D.A.I.R. Projects took over the historic Grant Park Methodist Church in 2007/08 it was perfect for their high-flying needs!
Oh shoot, I research while i write and it looks like my old friends at Mental Floss have beat me to the list of awesome—“11 New Uses for Old Churches”. Although sadly several of the best are not in the US including the skate park in England and the AMAZING library in the Netherlands. Hey now, could a Roller Derby league take over an abandoned church for the right price??