Preserving faith communities

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, May 22, 2011

It’s a simple, yet revolutionary idea: take older faith buildings and restore the architectural assets so congregations can more fully activate their mission.

In a nutshell, that’s Partners for Sacred Places, the nation’s lone organization dedicated to good stewardship and dynamic use of the nation’s religious buildings. The interfaith group’s preservation efforts, active in the Chicago area for nearly three years, recognize buildings as sanctuaries celebrating faith as well as far-reaching community centers addressing neighborhood needs.

“We see these historic places of faith as anchors for the community,” said Gianfranco Grande, director of the Partners of Sacred Places Chicago office. “They have more than architectural merit and represent spiritual ideas and fill community needs, which is why their preservation is so vital.”

Founded in Philadelphia in 1989, Partners for Sacred Places has evolved from its basic roots as a library- like resource for churches into an organization at the forefront of the preservation movement as a research sponsor, training center, grant-maker, community development agency and national policy player.

The cornerstone of Partners’ work is its “New Dollars, New Partners” training program. In this six- to nine-month training, Partners helps move parishes into action, providing staff practical know-how on community building, fundraising in and out of the congregation, building preservation and enhancing services.

“It’s ‘holistic training’ for the building of finances, people, landmarks and community,” said Grande, noting that Partners has helped congregations in all 50 states. “We offer the complete spectrum of tools for local parishes so that they can give full life to their buildings.”

Partners also helps congregations see their wide-ranging value to the community, citing research that upward of 80 percent of people using a religious building during the week don’t worship in that space on Sunday.

“From AA meetings and food pantries to after-school programs, churches have a fundamental role in their neighborhoods and we hope all parishes understand this,” Grande said.

Windy City work

In 2009, Partners officially opened a regional office in Chicago, boosted in large part by archdiocesan support.

“Partners talks a lot about ‘public social value,’ which is a larger way of thinking about what our parishes contribute to the community. We thought that was an important mission to have in Chicago,” said Msgr. John Canary, an early supporter of Partners within the archdiocese and current member of the organization’s Chicago advisory board.

In Chicago, host to dozens of century-old churches with rich histories, legacies and community influence, Partners is currently working with more than 200 churches, including 70 archdiocesan parishes. To date, 30 of those 70 archdiocesan parishes have completed the training and drafted strategic plans.

“Chicago is perfect ground for us,” Grande said. “There’s so much to do and so many in need.”

With so many parishes facing financial challenges and pressing infrastructure issues, Partners’ systemized approach guides church leaders through a comprehensive self-assessment that helps identify value, needs and goals.

“We’re hearing from our parishes that Partners is helping them think about the parish and its future in creative ways,” Canary said. “We believe we’re going to see very positive results from these efforts.”

Success seen

The historic Quinn Chapel on the near South Side was among the earliest congregations in Chicago to pursue Partners’ guidance and has become a model for local parishes to follow. When the then-164-year-old parish began the training in 2008, its congregation sat under 100 people. Less than three years later, the Quinn Chapel has seen a five-fold increase in its congregation and raised $2.2 million to restore its building at 2401 S. Wabash Ave.

“Unable to build new, we must work to preserve and restore,” Grande said.

After all, if churches are lost or abandoned, the area loses much more than a physical structure.

“We lose our heritage and who we are,” Grande said. “While we can tear them down and build new things, it’s a loss for the soul of our city, as these buildings have played witness to time and culture.”

In Chicago, a city built by ethnic groups with churches often serving as the epicenter of neighborhood life, churches provide a window to the past as well as filling necessary roles in the present, a realization that elevates the importance of Partners’ work.

“Even as communities across Chicagoland have changed, churches have been a constant,” Canary said. “Through it all, the churches’ mission continues and that anchors a community and provides a level of stability so important to quality of life.”