CALIFORNIA – On past Good Fridays, parishioners would have been making their way inside St. Thomas Aquinas Church in California to mark one of the most somber and holy days on the Christian calendar.

Not this year, though. The church was still at midday when Good Friday fell last month, light rain falling on its stained glass windows, the neighborhood around it silent. Stacks of brochures could be seen in the church’s narthex, along with a small statue of Jesus Christ shouldering a cross. Still taped to the front door was a decree issued in February by Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh stating that the building would cease to be a house of worship as of March 4 at 12:01 a.m., and that it should be relegated to “profane but not sordid use.”

In other words, the 63-year-old structure should be sold.

And it won’t be alone. As the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh seeks to consolidate its parishes and whittle down the number of churches in the region to more closely match the number of practicing Catholics, St. Thomas Aquinas Church will be put on the market, as will St. Joseph Church in Roscoe, St. Michael the Archangel in Fredericktown and Sts. Mary & Ann in Marianna, all of which closed at the same time as St. Thomas Aquinas.

“The care of the buildings is not something we can afford due to a variety of circumstances,” said the Rev. Edward Yuhas, who oversees the St. Katharine Drexel Parish, which includes the four churches and two others in the Mon Valley. “We can focus on our ministry, and that’s what the Catholic faith is about.”

The parish is carrying a legacy debt of $745,000, according to Yuhas, and “the parish would try really hard to use the proceeds from the sale of the buildings to pay back some of that debt.”

Parishioners have appealed the decisions to close both Sts. Mary & Ann and St. Michael the Archangel to the Vatican. A decision will likely be rendered within a year, according to Bob DeWitt, a spokesman for the diocese. The other two churches are going through a market value analysis.

In the homily he delivered when St. Michael the Archangel closed, Yuhas noted the challenges the church faced: a declining population in the Fredericktown area; a declining number of Catholics who attend Mass; and a century-old building in dire need of money for maintenance and repair.

To drive the point home, Yuhas explained that 593 congregants have died within the St. Katharine Drexel Parish over the last six years – exceeding the number of people who still attended services throughout the parish when all six buildings were still open.

How, when faced with these hurdles, do you sell a church building? Yuhas explained that the buildings could be purchased by other denominations, or by social service agencies. For instance, the building that housed the Ave Maria School in Ellsworth has been leased to NHS Human Services to be a school for autistic students.

When a building is sold, it must follow several steps in canon law, according to the Rev. Nicholas Vaskov, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. After a bishop issues a decree closing the structure, all the sacred items in the building are removed. This includes altars, statues, stained-glass windows, and any other items of religious significance. Then the building can be marketed.

The Catholic Church is not the only denomination in America trying to slough off buildings that have been denuded of members. According to a November article in The Atlantic, America is undergoing an “epidemic of empty churches.” Some of this can be pinned to demographic changes, the rise of megachurches or the increase in the number of “nones” in the United States who profess no religious affiliation. Some churches end up in the hands of other denominations or other faiths – in 2016, a historic church in Bridgeport, Conn., became a mosque, and a Presbyterian Church in Scranton became a Hindu temple two years before.

In Pittsburgh, the former St. John’s the Baptist Church in the Lawrenceville neighborhood became the Church Brew Works, and in the Strip District, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church was the Altar Bar, a live music venue. In 2016, ironically, it was purchased by a nondenominational congregation and is once again a church.

A couple from McDonald bought the St. Thomas Aquinas rectory in 2018 and made it their residence. “They love the home and are so happy to live in it,” Yuhas said. “They are taking good care of the property and their family loves to come and visit with them in their home.”

The church does have some say-so in what happens to a building, according to Vaskov. “We believe a church building maintains a sacred character because it was consecrated to God and sacred events occurred there,” he said. “Therefore, we place certain deed restrictions on the sale of a church building to ensure that its future use does not violate our beliefs.”

The four churches closed within the St. Katherine Drexel Parish were not the first to be shuttered in the Mon Valley. In 2014, the Diocese of Pittsburgh closed St. Anthony Church in Monongahela, and in the five years since it has been locked in litigation. Both the Vatican and Washington County President Judge Katherine B. Emery upheld the decision to shut down the church. Her decision, along with an edict to close St. Agnes Church in Richeyville, have been appealed to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court.

Church buildings that are in declining areas can be particularly tough to sell, according to John Muzyka of Church Realty, a firm based in Plano, Texas, that handles sale of church buildings and private schools. It can be particularly difficult if structures no longer meet current building codes or come with heavy maintenance costs.

“Sometimes you end up having to sell it for the land value,” he explained.

As the sale of St. Joseph Church in Roscoe looms, the borough’s mayor, Thomas Wilkinson, is not enthusiastic about the idea of it becoming a group home or some kind of shelter. Instead, he would like to see it become a business and get on the community’s tax rolls.

“It would be nice if someone would buy it and turn it into a nice restaurant,” Wilkinson said.

Staff Writer

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. He serves as editorial page editor, and has covered the arts and entertainment and worked as a municipal beat reporter.

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