Every year, more than 6,000 houses of worship close. That not only affects congregations but social service and community programs that use those buildings and the communities that surround them.
To help save some of the more significant houses of worship, the National Fund for Sacred Places — a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Partners for Sacred Places aimed at saving historic churches around the country — was launched in 2016 with $14 million in grants from Indiana-based Lilly Endowment Inc.
Last month, Lilly announced an additional four-year $15.9 million grant to continue the organization’s efforts.
“The heart of it is continuing the program for another five years,” said Chad Martin, a Lancaster resident who is the director of the National Fund for Sacred Places. “(Lilly) will have, over the course of nine years, dedicated nearly $30 million to this effort to support houses of worship.”
Applications on the rise
To date, 600 houses of worship have applied for funding and 44 applicants have been approved. Grants for an additional eight to 10 sacred places will be announced in October. Martin said he expects the organization to fund roughly 55 houses of worship through the initial grant.
Funds must be used for brick-and-mortar projects. That includes exterior repairs and compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations or interior renovations “where the project is being respectful of the historic fabric and being done with preservation ethics in mind but adapting the building for 21st century uses,” Martin said.
Among the churches that completed projects under the first phase of Lilly funding are Christ Church in Philadelphia, which restored its historic steeple, and Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, which hosts 250 community activities annually.
Martin, who previously served as pastor at Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster, said that while the organization’s broader work is to support historic houses of worship, this program in particular targets historic houses of worship “that are still owned and occupied by an active community of faith. Most of it is going to active Christian congregations.”
Although the Lilly grant is aimed at Christian churches, the National Fund has received additional funding to help other faiths.
“The program is open to applicants from any faith tradition — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist ... we’ve had some Native American groups apply,” he said.
A. Robert Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places said the initiative responds “to both the fragility and strength of these places.
“You don’t have to be Methodist to support the preservation of a Methodist church or Catholic to value a cathedral or Jewish to restore a synagogue,” he stated in a release. “This effort will encourage America to fully understand how important these civic places are.”
To qualify for a grant, the building and congregation must be historically significant; congregations must be stable and have the ability to raise additional funds to complete the project; the building must serve the community; and the timing to complete the project must be right.
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, is among the churches receiving funds. Shaped like a spaceship, it was architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s nod to the Hagia Sophia of Byzantine times.
“They’re still planning the project but the piece that pushed them to reach out to us was a need to restore the roof. As Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are, they have a complicated roof.”
Martin said four sacred places in Lancaster County have sent letters of interest and one — he declined to name it — has submitted a full application.
Deciding which sacred places qualify for grants is difficult, Martin said.
An advisory board and staff team make recommendations before a final decision is made.
“It’s hard because there are ... way more good projects than we can support. If two or three are equally strong, then it comes down to questions like who’s in a position where they not only have the ability to do what they need to but that the timing is right.
“We’re not a faith-based organization. We do this work because we believe in the public value and the common good of what these places serve.”