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Churches that were; unique spaces that still could be

March 7, 2011

Painting from 1895 (4 years after St. Cecilia's was built), "St. Cecilia" by John William Waterhouse, in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

I’m reading in the New York Times about a Brooklyn church, St. Cecilia’s.  I’m nodding along because the story is so familiar — an 1891 church, drawing a third of its 800-person capacity, a shuttered school, an empty convent and residence building, the high costs of maintaining it all.  Do you think you know the end of the story?  Will it end with someone wanting to demolish it all, as could happen with Philadelphia’s Church of the Assumption (1849) and a host of other empty church buildings around the country, across the globe?

In this particular circumstance, St. Cecilia herself may have intervened.  The patron saint of music (as she was dying, she sang to God), St. Cecilia’s has found new life hosting musicians and other artists within its walls.

When Reverend James Krische arrived at the church in 2008, there was no money for maintenance of the buildings, the school had a declining enrollment, the church a shrinking congregation.  Still focusing on mission and service to the community, the pastor sought to connect with local artists.  The raw space was ideal for photo shoots.  Word began to spread.

A parishioner with friends in a band told them about the space.  Another parishioner with art contacts suggested St. Cecilia’s.  And an arts program was accidentally launched.

One artist remarked “it’s like a weird commune or something that nobody ever intended to exist.”

The first large art show opened in 2009, with more than 30 artists, 2 bands and young and hip visitors who admired the art, enjoyed the music and marveled at the space.

Now there are 36 artists in residence (with 93 on the waiting list) and photo and film shoots that pay for the buildings’ upkeep.

NYT:  Artists Find Accommodating Landlord:  A Struggling Brooklyn Parish (3/6/11)

Could this model work without St. Cecilia as a patron?

I suspect the answer is an artful, tuneful yes.

(In February, the NYT reported on a twin-spired church in Sheepshead Bay that is slated to lose its landmark spires. A Neighborhood’s Steeples Are Set to Disappear Quietly)

Just a reminder — the hearing date regarding demolition of Church of the Assumption is March 14, 10 am, 1515 Arch Street.

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