The Hidden Value of a City's Sacred Places

As more inner city places of worshipped are abandoned by congregations, what is their value to the community? The answer, more than most may think, according to Bob Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Places. Jaeger toured and spoke in Covington last week.

"We have learned more really important things over the last few years about our old churches and synagogues," Jaeger said during the Covington Business Council's monthly luncheon. "They should be an integral part of the strategies in rebuilding a downtown."

Partners for Sacred Places consults across the country in aiding communities reuse former churches. The organization is in the midst of a broad study that aims to determine the economic impact of "sacred places" in local communities. The study of what Jaeger and his team call "the halo effect" is still in progress but one study from the University of Pennsylvania found that just twelve different congregations in Philadelphia, where Partners for Sacred Places is based, add $50 million to the local economy.

Jaeger explained that more than half of that figure comes from direct spending by the churches, nearly a third is catalytic contributions, and more than sixteen-percent is directly tied to schools attached to religious institutions. The study-in-progress by Partners for Sacred Places is examining that impact more closely in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Fort Worth, Texas. 

"These are valuable resources, but a lot of parishes are not what they once were," Jaeger said. "And yet, these small congregations are just as committed to their communities as they ever were, but they are stretched."

And they are also closing. In Chicago and Detroit, in 1989, the Catholic dioceses closed between thirty and forty parishes in both cities. Jaeger and his team were invited to help determine the reusue potential for the churches, and Partners for Sacred Places was officially born.

It was during that time that the organization started to look more closely at what places of worship are used for during the week, outside of the regular Sunday services. It found that ninety-three percent of urban churches open their doors to public events and that eighty-one-percent of their space is often used by non-members of the church, with kids being served most often. 

Jaeger's visit to Covington, a city he called "amazing", is particularly timely. The city completed a study recently that maps out a plan to revitalize its urban core. Additionally, part of the Gateway Community & Technical College's grand plan to build an elaborate urban campus here includes the purchase and renovation of the landmark Methodist church at the corner of Fifth & Greenup Streets. 

"I'm beginning to get a sense of what's happening here," he said. Jaeger's visit to Covington, led by Rev. Peter D'Angio of Trinity Episcopal Church, also included a trip down Interstate 75 to Lexington where he took a similar tour. He has no doubts that the philosophy of sacred places and their potential impact on a local economy can apply to Covington as well. 

Sometimes that means re-purposing a former church, or working with a struggling church. Jaeger described three ways an impact is made by these sacred places: a magnet effect (weddings, events, festivals that attract outsiders to the area), individual impact (the sociological work done by churches in the form of counseling), and community development (church spaces serving as incubators for smaller businesses and operations). 

Maintaining that impact should be included in revitalization plans, Jaeger said. "We've got to build the family of people who care. That's the bottom line." 

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photo: Mother of God Church in Covington, from Partners for Sacred Places Facebook page. The organization had a teaser contest about where its next presentation would be and used this photo. It's interesting to see folks from all over the country attempt to identify our city (though, it didn't take long!). Check it out here: Partners for Sacred Places Facebook