Ashima Krishna is an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary.
Over the past few decades, vacant and underutilized churches have become a familiar sight in American cities.
But what about churches in neighborhoods that aren’t doing well, areas that are less attractive to developers looking to turn a profit?
In Buffalo, a split between east and west
But by 2010, the city’s population had dwindled to just over 260,000 people — less than half of what it was in 1950.
Saint Agnes Roman Catholic Church was bought in 2009 and converted into a Buddhist temple called Tu Vien Dai Bao Trang Nghiem Temple. The church has predominantly remained intact, although some iconography has been removed: the cruciﬁx, and several images of the Stations of the Cross. Credit: Author
According to the 2015 American Community Survey, these neighborhoods are now predominantly African American. But they’ve also become home to immigrants from South Asia, along with resettled refugees from Vietnam, Central Africa and Iraq.
A closer look at two faith-to-faith conversions
The same sort of conversions have been taking place in Buffalo’s East Side. Many former Catholic churches have, over the years, been converted into other denominations — Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal and Evangelical — to accommodate the area’s African American community.
For my study, I interviewed those involved in the conversion of these two Catholic churches to learn more about how they were successfully adapted.
The image on the left is an undated interior view of Queen of Peace Roman Catholic Church. On the right is an interior view of the Jami Masjid today. Credit: Image A, courtesy of the collection at The Buffalo History Museum. General photograph collection, buildings — religious — Roman Catholic. Image B, courtesy of Ashima Krishna, Author provided
The structural elements of the church, however, all remained the same — including the wooden trusses, doors and the adjoining buildings.
Today, the mosque offers camps for children and runs a school on the premises. The neighborhood residents — not all of whom are Muslim — have been largely appreciative of the new facility, especially the new playground on the premises.
The Buddhist temple, on the other hand, made very little changes to the interior, aside from removing the Stations of the Cross and the altar. The priest, Bhiksu Thich Minh Chanh, replaced the statuary with large Buddha statues. But the pews are still there, save for a few rows in front that were removed and carpeted for prayer services.
From left to right: an interior view of the former St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church from 1934; a photograph from 1986, showing significant simplifications in interior ornamentation; and the Buddhist temple today. Credit: Images A and B, courtesy of the Chancery Archives of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. Image C, courtesy of Ashima Krishna, Author provided
The neighbors in the immediate vicinity — some of whom had attended services at St. Agnes — told us that they were sad that their church was gone. But most were happy that, at the very least, it continued to be used as a place of worship, as opposed to lying vacant, or worse, being demolished. Even with the neighborhood’s support, the temple has been vandalized several times; clearly, not everyone is happy with the conversion.
Buffalo has shown how faith-to-faith church conversions can be a win-win situation for everyone involved: The diocese gets to sell a redundant property, immigrants can acquire a property that will strengthen their community, and the city builds its tax base by attracting new residents to the area.