Focus on saving churches

How to save historic churches, beset by diminished membership and declining financial wherewithal, has sparked a move to bring non-profit groups, educational institutions, civic organizations and faith entities together to help find ways to preserve the buildings.

“How do we make these large historical churches more viable? That’s our issue,” said Jennifer Burden, historic preservation staff person for the Oil City-based Oil Region Alliance (ORA).

To deal with that dilemma, the ORA and the Bridge Builders Community Foundation organization have teamed up to hold a town hall meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, at First Baptist Church in Franklin. It is free and open to the public.

It is being billed as a venue to “bring historic churches and civic groups together” for a three-fold purpose:

— Brainstorm ideas and create opportunities to partner on space-sharing concepts between churches and various organizations

— Provide an opportunity to network with regional faith, non-profit, educational and civic groups

— Establish a sustainable plan to continue working toward creative partnerships between faith and community organizations.

“This meeting is to bring the non-profit, secular groups together with the faith groups, to pair them up so people with too little space and those with too much space can live together,” said Burden. “And while we are concentrating on the oil region, this meeting is open to everyone.”

The public session will be presented by the Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places. It is a national, non-sectarian and non-profit organization.

The organization says it is focused on “building the capacity of congregations of historic sacred places to better serve their communities as anchor institutions, nurturing transformation and shaping vibrant, creative communities.”

The organization does similar work for national heritage-designated areas across the U.S. and was enlisted to assist the ORA by Marilyn Black, who oversees the Oil Region National Heritage Area.

“We expressed interest in getting them here because of the Assumption Church and St. Stephen Church coming to the forefront,” said Burden. “She took the initiative and it developed from there.”

Groundwork is laid

Last August, Burden and Kathy Bailey, director of Oil City’s Main Street Program, made an effort to “put the brakes on this” in regards to a proposal to combine St. Stephen and St. Joseph churches, both in Oil City, and potentially tear down St. Stephen Church.

To that end, they went beyond parishioners’ anxiety about the loss of a church and insisted that historic preservation and adaptive re-use should be part of any decision-making.

In researching churches throughout the tri-state area, they found new roles for churches of all sizes. They included conversions to condos, a boutique hotel, offices and more.

Repurposing large buildings is possible, insisted Bailey and Burden, pointing to the conversion of Oil City’s old post office into a museum and the National Transit office building into an arts center.

At the time, the duo had also been preparing a preservation study and plan for Assumption Church, an Oil City church that was previously decommissioned as a Catholic worship site.

“We have finished the preservation plan for Assumption Church and its school building,” said Burden. “The study offers a better understanding of the physical condition of those buildings.”

Concerns are expansive

While much of the current public sentiment regarding historic church preservation revolves around the future of St. Stephen Church, the concerns go beyond a single building, said Burden.

“This town hall meeting extends well beyond St. Stephen Church,” she said. “It is a nationwide issue. But, we will see it quickly in the oil region because we have so many of these large buildings that have declining membership and financial problems. So we have to think outside the box to keep them viable.”

Earlier in the week, Burden and Trenton Moulin, the Bridge Builders director, mailed out notices about the town hall meeting to 200 churches and non-profit organizations in the area.

“We are getting responses already so people are really interested in this,” said Burden.

There is no cost to attend the meeting, but RSVPs are encouraged. Those may be sent to Burden at

First Baptist Church is located at 1041 Liberty St. in Franklin. Off-street parking is available behind the church.