Calvary Lutheran was a church in the Highlands.
The 18,000 square foot gothic edifice was built in 1927. And last year, real estate agent Tyler Smith sold it to developers for just under $600,000.
As for Calvary Lutheran’s parishioners, Smith says, “Their congregation really dwindled. And they had no interest in maintaining the real estate or being landlords. So they just wanted to dispose of the asset.”
Bar hoppers, startups and renters have been making use of former churches and converting them to a variety of uses. In the past few years, at least a dozen or so church structures in the city have attracted a different kind of congregation. Smith says it’s not only a sense of reverence that attracts developers to churches. There’s also a practical element.
“A lot of churches have to have a large parking base or great access to parking,” says Smith. “So that’s what makes great church facilities, as well as sanctuaries, meeting halls — from a commercial real estate standpoint.”
A Trend Emerges
Calvary Lutheran is also in a prime location on Bardstown Road near shops, restaurants and other community centers.
And this trend of churches getting flipped into housing and business is happening in cities across the globe, from Louisville to London. But it’s not likely every or even most church buildings will be converted anytime soon.
“Christianity is, globally, on the rise,” says Steven Watkins, assistant professor of Christian Studies and Classics at the University of Louisville. “It’s still the largest world religion.”
Watkins says growth in Christianity is primarily in Latin America, Africa and parts of East Asia. The biggest areas of growth tend to be Charismatic Pentecostal in nature. In Europe, the religion is seeing a decline. As for the U.S., Watkins says, “Church attendance here is not nearly as in decline as in Europe.” But, he says, “It is slightly declining.”
(Red dots on the map represent area churches that are no longer being used for church services.)
According to Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study in 2014, about 23 percent of Americans identified as religiously unaffiliated. That’s up from 16 percent in 2007. In Kentucky, the portion of the population that is religiously unattached is about the same — at 22 percent.
“Secularity/atheism is on the rise in the United States,” says Watkins. “That’s the data, but it’s kind of a slow rise. It’s not going off the cliff or anything, but it’s definitely increasing.”
Mix a declining congregation with an old dwelling to maintain, and it’s no wonder many churches are selling off their antique properties.
That’s what happened to the Metropolitan Community Church of Louisville. The congregation used to be housed in a cute building with a red door on Highland Avenue in the Highlands. But in September 2015, they moved to a nondescript leased office space in West Buechel, outside the Watterson.
Rev. Colleen Foley is the senior pastor.
“It was basically because it was an old church building,” she says. “It had originally been a Lutheran church that was built in the late 1800s, and it was becoming quite costly to maintain.”
The congregation was already small at about 50-60 people. And the members were getting older. So with a less-than-blessed income from church-goers, tithes decreased. It just didn’t make sense to stay on Highland Avenue.
“The purpose of the church is to do more than just maintain a building, and that was all we were doing at that point,” she says.
Foley also sees a future trend for denominations to save money and maximize space.
“I think you’re gonna start seeing more and more churches sharing a church building, different denominations even,” she says. “So the cost is spread over more people. Really, what’s the purpose of having a church building that’s used maybe only Wednesday night for choir practice and Bible study, and on Sundays?”
In the meantime, there’s a new kind of flock gathering in these former sanctuaries. The building on Highland Avenue will eventually become apartments and a media studio. And a block away, people pack another former church often.
“When we moved in here … we worshiped beer. We traveled the world in search of beer. It really did become a religion for us in a sorta way,” says Lori Beck, co-owner of Holy Grale with Tyler Trotter.
Before being re-christened into a bar, the structure was an old Unitarian Chapel House built in the early 1900s. The church outgrew the space and the building became many things including a textile business, printing business and a rare bookbinder. Before Holy Grale, it was a hot dog place.
With its wooden tables, stained glass windows, religious paraphernalia and austere walls, the building’s origins were incorporated into the bar’s aesthetic.
“When we saw the building up for lease, we immediately contacted the landlord,” Beck says. “And we did not intend to open a religiously-themed craft beer bar but we did want to pay respect to the original architecture story of the building.”
But even though a holy congregation has left the building, Beck talks about the lingering sentiment she wants bar-goers to feel when they walk into Holy Grale.
“I think that most people get a sense of warmth and comfort when they walk in,” she says. “There’s a soul, I guess, to the building. And when we talk about respecting the architecture, I think that’s what we’re talking about is allowing the soul of the building to be felt and not mess with it too much.”
And it’s that feeling of sanctity that buyers of church buildings want to keep intact.