READING, PA (July 3, 2019) – This summer, the Community Foundation is hosting three interns to begin what may be a very long process. They are identifying and cataloging every building that’s ever been built in the City of Reading to serve as a house of worship. Eventually, we will catalog each house of worship in all of Berks County. It’s a very big project that is likely to take several years.
We’re starting in Reading and plan to work our way outward. The interns are attempting to photograph each building and capture their history, current use and physical characteristics.
It’s no secret that many of our local congregations are in deep decline, as they are all across the country. A significant number of churches have already closed. The fate of some is very uncertain.
All around Berks County, these church buildings are repositories of our heritage. We’ll ultimately create a database of those buildings that can be used for many purposes, some of which we have in mind.
We want to identify “churches,” or “church buildings” (both terms we use generically to include mosques, chapels, synagogues and any other building built specifically for worship), that have a particularly high priority for preservation due to their unique historical, architectural or artistic value. The original Bethel AME Church (119 N. 10th St. in Reading), for instance, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a network of supportive locations used to smuggle escaped slaves to freedom. It would be a terrible shame to lose that piece of history.
We also want to identify which church buildings could be strong candidates for preservation through repurposing. Chicago, for instance, has become known for converting churches into housing. We might be able to convert some of the buildings into health care facilities. Or they could become community centers or recreation sites to help address an acute shortage of “out-of-school” programs.
But we can’t do that if we don’t know what buildings exist. And it helps to know their statuses and conditions.
Our interns have been trained by our friends at Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based organization that works all across the United States helping to preserve church buildings. Frankly, we don’t know how long this effort will take. It’s anybody’s guess how many churches our three interns will be able to catalog in a summer. But it will begin to give us an idea of how we might expand the program to include volunteers and even the churches themselves.
In the office, we call this the “Sacred Places Project” and it’s part of a larger initiative that I’ll write about in an upcoming blog post.
Kevin K. Murphy, President
Berks County Community Foundation