When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn’t think much about the cost of heating the place.
Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.
“I felt like crying,” Lisa Macheca said. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?’ ”
Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.
The percentage of Americans who belong to a church, mosque or synagogue has declined in the past 20 years, forcing some religious leaders to make a difficult decision: sell their houses of worship and downsize.
In the U.S., many religious buildings were built during periods of religious growth, said Cleveland State University professor of urban planning Robert Simons.
“The buildings we have that were built in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s are not really functional for today’s perspective,” said Simons, author of Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn: The Adaptive Reuse of America’s Derelict Religious Buildings and Schools. “Too many classrooms, a little bit too big.”
These large religious buildings can fall into disrepair, placing a financial burden on shrinking congregations. The process is a “vicious circle,” said Simons, because congregations in deteriorating buildings may have trouble attracting new members, which in turn reduces donations.
“Why not revamp what we have?”
More than 6,800 religious buildings have sold in the past five years and more than 1,400 are currently for sale in the U.S., according to the commercial real estate database CoStar.
Some will be sold to other congregations, while others will become something entirely different — like a nun-themed coffee shop.
In Columbia, Ill., Cafe on the Abbey opened last year inside the former convent of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.
Co-owners Danny Ball and Marcia Johns-Brooks are leaning into the history of the building. Patrons can nibble on a slice of pineapple preacher’s cake along with a cup of Nun’s Habit coffee — under a life-size painting of nuns enjoying a meal together.
Even the logo, a nun drinking coffee, pays homage to the building’s previous life.
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