Our Lady of Grace used to be a vibrant center of the community in the tiny borough of Somerdale in Camden County.
The towering red brick Catholic church held weekly Masses and hosted baptisms, weddings and funerals as the large organ boomed from its balcony.
But over time, church attendance declined and the parish was consolidated into another one nearby. Our Lady of Grace sat empty for years on a stretch of White Horse Pike near a Wawa and a car rental agency.
Now, the church and its nearby buildings are ready for their next act.
Our Lady of Grace will soon become Reserve at Grace — a restaurant, community center and 84 apartment units, including some set aside for seniors. The first phase, including the age-restricted units, is expected to be completed this year.
“One of the things that creates a lot of flexibility is the fact that you’re turning a tax-exempt property into a taxable entity,” Somerdale Mayor Gary Passanante said. “So it’s kind of a win-win for everyone.”
As Catholic schools continue to see declining enrollment and parishes are consolidated or closed, a growing number of communities in New Jersey are facing complex questions about what to do with aging church buildings.
In 1971, there were more than 600 Catholic schools in New Jersey, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Last year, there were just under 200 Catholic schools. Parishes, rectories, convents and other Catholic institutions have also seen significant declines, leading to consolidations and vacant buildings.
Dioceses sometimes sell or lease properties that are no longer needed “in a way that best serves the mission of that faith community,” said Rayanne Bennett, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Trenton, one of the five Catholic dioceses in New Jersey.
“That can mean that some properties are sold and the resulting revenue is put toward parish or school needs, or other initiatives,” she said. “Consideration is given to finding a purchaser or lessee who will bring a benefit to the community at large, and often, the property is leased to another non-profit organization.”
In Our Lady of Grace’s case, the church was shuttered for nearly a decade when Passanante, Somerdale’s mayor, came up with the idea to convert it into a mixed-use development.
In 2018, the township bought the 2.5-acre complex, including the church, a school, a rectory and gym, for $1.2 million. It then immediately sold the property — excluding the church — to a developer.
Passanante was prompted to come up for a plan for the vacant property by a nearby church’s extinction.
After sitting vacant for several years, St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in Magnolia was demolished in 2016 and turned into a Royal Farms convenience store.
The mayor said he didn’t want to see that happen in Somerdale. Turning the old Our Lady of Grace church into the Reserve at Grace will save the building and the will receive tax revenue. The solution has support from both the township and Catholic leaders, he said.
For some vacant properties, converting former churches and religious buildings in to affordable housing is an ideal solution — merging community need with part of the church’s mission. Others are creatively turned into restaurants and convenience stores, while still others are floated as potential public health sites.
The township of North Bergen recently purchased an 82-year-old parish hall that once belonged to St. Rocco’s Catholic Church across the street.
A final decision has not been made on its use, but it’s likely to be used as a public health site, said Phil Swibinski, a spokesperson for the township. The site’s prime location — adjacent to town hall — “makes it a natural fit for municipal government purposes,” he said.
In Jersey City, St. Bridget’s Senior Residence opened in July of 2014, after several church parishes were consolidated.
St. Bridget’s rectory, convent and school, consisting of two three-story buildings and one five-story building, were converted into a senior residence with 43 affordable units. Some apartments were specifically set aside for people with disabilities or seniors in poor health conditions.
Years later, St. Bridget’s Church was also sold to be converted into apartments.
Christopher Garlin, a managing member of RCG Development Group, one of the two firms that developed the St. Bridget’s Senior Residence, said he was approached by a pastor who said the campus was underutilized and could be turned into affordable housing.
That type of scenario “gives the church an opportunity to deal with, obviously, the economic challenges they have, which is one of the reasons they look to dispose of these properties or lease these properties. But, it’s also an opportunity to meet a very pressing social need,” Garlin said.
Vacant religious properties are often found in urban communities where the church has contracted the most, Garlin added.
In the past, neighborhoods may have been filled with large families sending multiple kids to Catholic schools. But as those families age and move out — and the area gentrifies — adding more housing may take priority, said David Murphy, the program director for the Church Properties Initiative at the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate at the University of Notre Dame.
“I think the beauty of the church is that it’s so local and so particular to its community,” he said.
Murphy oversaw a 2021 report that found converting underutilized properties into housing, community centers or other spaces can continue the church’s mission, while also sometimes generating revenue. But whatever the property turns into, it should reflect a community need, Murphy said.
“I think if you’re still serving the community in some capacity, that’s what the church is there for, whether or not the church is still open or not,” he added.
Converting church buildings comes with challenges. The churches themselves have large, open sanctuaries, and were “built for a particular purpose ,which was a Mass,” Murphy said. That makes it harder to repurpose the building.
The churches were usually built decades ago and may have problems with asbestos and lead paint. That often leads to costly renovations.
But the buildings also often in central locations, seen as social and community hubs in the past. Rectories and religious schools are easier to redevelop and lack much of the sacred or cultural complications that come with converting churches that were once centers of worship, Murphy added.
Not every plan to convert a church building is successful though.
In Asbury Park, a developer faced pushback from the township when it tried to buy Holy Spirit Catholic Church, said Elisabeth Wendel, the listing’s real estate agent. The deal has not been closed yet.
Other churches wanted the property, but couldn’t afford it the $2.75 million listing price, she said.
The developer, Mountain View Developments, proposed multiple plans, including housing. The township has so far rejected the proposals for developing the Holy Spirit Church property.
In other towns, Catholic churches that are on the registry of historic places may face additional challenges after they are no longer needed, said Matthew Manion, the faculty director for the Villanova University Center for Church Management.
Church leaders should continually reassess their properties, in light of changing demographic and attendance trends, and make difficult decisions that best benefit the church, he said. However, the desire to keep buildings is understandable.
Manion said he once heard a bishop say, “in the last 100 years of the United States, unfortunately the Catholic Church did a better job of building buildings than it did at building disciples of Jesus.”
Church leaders recognize “we have to focus on discipleship and if our buildings help us do that, great,” he added. “But if they don’t, the mission is building disciples.”
Development in progress at former Catholic church property
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Brianna Kudisch may be reached at email@example.com.