Church conversion, from pizza pie to piety. And garlic knots for the communion host?

Social critics have asserted for decades that American religiosity is in a state of decline.  In recent years, they have grown more confident.  And they certainly have evidence: churches are closing left and right across the country, a condition that accelerated during the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns.  Additionally, polls show a reduced percentage of American adults who agree with such statements: “Religion and personal faith is very important in my life”.  Despite these examples, which I have documented more than once on this blog, many megachurches still greet robust numbers of congregants each weekend, and youthful, burgeoning immigrant communities have reclaimed church buildings from yesteryear, filling parking lots to buildings that haven’t seen crowds since the 1980s.  Meanwhile, some of the older, less demographically vibrant churches are leasing their handsome buildings to a second church community (often denominationally far removed from the landlord), who hold their services in the same sanctuary but at a later time.  Lastly, non-denominational start-up churches—those that lack the capital to build anew or even to lease a freestanding structure—are finding creative new locations to gather their flock.  I’ve written about the increasingly widespread “storefront church” that leases space in a strip mall or an aging old 19th century building along a historic main street.  Such fledgling communities of faith rarely blossom into the next Crystal Cathedral (which itself faced a downfall in the last decade), but that may not be the minister’s aspirations.  As long as a shared mission and theological vision exists among a congregation, they can thrive anywhere, even the living room of a private residence.  Churches are quite versatile when it comes to real estate and worship space.  A church conversion can happen in both directions: either a church transformed into another use (e.g. a theater, housing, or an accounting firm), or some unrelated building finding new life as a church, mosque, synagogue, or any other house of worship.

The town of Orange, Virginia, 90 miles southwest of Washington DC, may be far enough outside the federal orbit that it doesn’t quite qualify as a bedroom community.  But the three-block main street clearly receives a fair amount of investment—investment that would not likely take place if it the town were 150 miles away from such a major economic engine.

I’ve covered Orange in an article once before.  The 2020 Census indicates a population of just over 5,000, which is about double what it was in 1950, with most of that growth taking place in the 1990s.  It might not boast a fully resurgent main street of locally owned specialty shops—in contrast with Culpeper, Virginia, twenty miles to the north—but it clearly is undergoing some degree of economic “churn”.  The Town has approved many residential construction permits.  The 19th century commercial buildings are receiving historically sensitive scrubbing, both inside and out, even—or perhaps most importantly—ultra thin oddities like this one.

If there’s a market for investing in an abnormally narrow structure like the one above—apart from the fact that weird buildings nearly always find a buyer if the location isn’t completely nonviable—then it’s fair to conclude that Orange isn’t a town whose best days are behind it.

Businesses in Orange, both auto-oriented and pedestrian scaled, are shifting along with the influx of people, at least some of whom are capitalizing on its location, which is close—but not too close—to the nation’s capital.  The two neoclassical bank buildings on Orange’s Main Street don’t seem to be having an easy time finding a tenant, as I reported previously with a newly vacant Bank of America. But I don’t think they’re going to face the wrecking ball.

Main Street in Orange will probably resemble the picture-perfect Davis Street in Culpeper within a decade.  But this means the current shifts allow for some unlikely experimentation—a microcosm, perhaps, for the changing and increasingly uncertain religious landscape of small-town America.  This image, on the eastern end of Main Street, came as a bit of surprise:

church conversion from pizzeria to Anglican faith in Orange VA

Christ Anglican of Orange, according to its website, began in 2007 through Morning Prayer meetings at a private home.  From what I can tell, it moved to this commercial building within the last five years or so.  But this isn’t just any storefront.  It’s a church conversion of a select pedigree.  Not every church has a large mural stretching the entire space below the cornice.

What’s it supposed to depict?  Surely that hill isn’t Golgotha.  Directly below the mural is a small white banner about the same width as the two Ionic columns.  And the painters didn’t fully shroud the old label scar: “A Taste of Italy”.  The mural is archetypal Italian countryside.  Is this church conversion a former restaurant?  Not even.  It’s a current restaurant.  If one turns past the corner to the side facing a parking lot, the full view makes it evident.

church conversion from pizzeria to Anglican faith in Orange VA

Christ Anglican occupies a portion of a large restaurant facility whose primary tenant is Mario’s Pizzeria.  At some point in the last several years, longstanding Mario’s Pizzeria decided to shrink its footprint and sublease the residual space…to a church.  A Google Street View from October 2015 shows what it used to be: at that time, the sign that now says “Church” still said “Mario’s”.  And, directly next to the mounted sign, engraved in the stucco, were the words “ALL DAY BUFFET”.  Another label scar is visible on the side with the main entrance, next to the parking lot.

church conversion from pizzeria to Anglican faith

It’s not easy to see, but, to the right of the green and white letters that say “PIZZA” and “PASTA”, a mounting horizontal metal strip continues.  And a rusted outline is barely discernible: “BUFFET”. 

It’s pretty easy to put two and two together to deduce the origins of this church conversion: Mario’s Pizzeria, already a big facility for a small town, had a vast assembly room closest to East Main Street, with a buffet that most likely wasn’t popular enough to be profitable.  So the owners untethered the space, then leased to Christ Anglican.  However, as the name indicates, this isn’t the typical non-denominational storefront church.  Amidst a landscape of dwindling church attendance, Christ Anglican belongs to the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), a young denomination consisting primarily of former members of the Episcopal Church in the United States (TECUSA) and the Anglican Church of Canada, who left those denominations due to their increasingly liberal approach to theology, soteriology, and ecclesiology.  Having articulated their escalating disagreements in the mid 2000s, these congregations faced dwindling support from TECUSA and, as a result, sought to transfer their allegiances to Anglican communions in Africa, whose scriptural interpretations remained conservative.  These disaffiliated churches, which retained fealty to the 39 Articles of Religion that have formed the Anglican Church doctrine since 1571, sought to reorganize under a North American seat of leadership, thus prompting the founding of the ACNA in June 2009.

While the ACNA faced challenges and setbacks common to many American churches during the COVID lockdown years, most congregational reporting indicates that the ACNA is on a trajectory of recovery from its dramatic drop in 2020, much of which correlated to government imposed social distancing restrictions.  The Episcopal Church has not reported a similarly confident recovery since COVID, but this should come as no surprise: TECUSA has, as I have frequently noted, demonstrated an almost uninterrupted decline for the last 60 years.  Given that membership in Episcopal churches has dropped by about 50% in that time, why should the last three years be any different?  Conversely, it’s safe to assume that the intention and vision of Christ Anglican Church in Orange is to grow, mature, and eventually achieve sufficiently firm footing to purchase its own church building, or potentially even property to construct a church.

The point of this church conversion article isn’t to chronicle a spitting contest between two denominations largely operating in theological dispute, despite claims to a shared heritage in the Church of England.  But I guess that’s kind of what I unintentionally ended up doing.  The church conversion in Orange, VA is interesting on its own terms.  Commercial buildings haven’t historically hosted religious, civic, or charitable uses, but it certainly wasn’t because of physical impossibility.  It just never occurred to anyone in the past, and churches nearly always had denominational financial banking the precluded the need to operate as a tenant with a lease.  But necessity is of course the mother of invention, so a building that can host an office or a furniture showroom can, with enough architectural ingenuity, host a sanctuary or an assembly hall.

Applying this logic to this ACNA church conversion from a former Italian/pizza buffet, I simply cannot imagine ever finding an Episcopal church that leases space in such a way.  The denomination is too established; its real estate portfolio is vast.  And even though the TECUSA 2022 Parochial Report Data determines a median Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of a meager 35 across the denomination’s 6,789 open parishes, the governance structure is more likely to pursue alternative property management strategies: sharing the worship space with a younger, growing congregation; leasing office (or Sunday school) space to other like-minded nonprofits; subdividing the land and building affordable housing on an underutilized parking lot or green space; closing the parish and putting the property on the market.  I do not foresee any Episcopal Church selling off an oversized old building so it can migrate its remaining congregation to a strip mall.  Then again, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), another Mainline Protestant denomination in precipitous decline, has done exactly that.  The growing prevalence of church conversions proves the fluid nature of how people of faith choose to assemble, demonstrating practices as sundry and varied as the number of denominations themselves.

As for this church conversion in Orange, it’s probably a pretty harmonious paring. The church gets a prominent location with easy off-street parking, and the operating hours don’t usually conflict with the restaurant. The restaurant gets a reliable rent payment. On those rare occasions where the two operations overlap, I can only confidently assert a few things: the dine-in customers on Sunday brunch get some heart-thumping background music, and weekday evening worship services at the church get tempted with tantalizing aromas.  

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8 thoughts on “Church conversion, from pizza pie to piety. And garlic knots for the communion host?

  1. Chris B

    Tangential comment about older congregations with excess land and affordable housing: I have recently (successfully) petitioned for rezoning of church land for development of affordable homeownership opportunities, one next to an older “city” church and one next to a suburban church.

    I’m aware of one more situation (suburban, at the edge of Perry Township) where a church made a deal with a developer of affordable rental (and I think possibly senior) apartments.

    There is some “missional alignment” between Christian churches and affordable-housing nonprofits, so this is something that I think we will see more of.


    You have written more than once on the systematic decline of (especially) Mainline denominations, which naturally leads to the question of what to do with smaller-church real estate. Just as in retail, big is in. Big boxes, big churches. So presumably some giant (10-20 acre) suburban sites of declining Mainline Churches will inevitably be sold to growing storefront (evangelical) church start ups. Some more may become senior living communities, multi-service centers (health care, day care, etc.).

    At the bottom line, real estate is fungible…obsolete church buildings can become breweries, offices, condos, schools, event centers, and anything else a developer with money can imagine. And the same is true of old restaurants, bookstores, and other strip mall retail spaces. Even suburban “office-warehouse”.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Agree 100% with what you’re saying about the “missional alignment” regarding affordable housing. Over a decade ago, when I was living in Boston, I learned about how the Catholic archdiocese over there had an entire real estate spin-off 501(c)(3) that was completely independently managed, which sought to divest the Archdiocese of declining parishes by selling the church properties to affordable housing developers, generally with adaptive re-use in mind. A high-capital entity like the Archdiocese can easily do this. Same with most Mainline Protestant churches. Needless to say, churches with less money and manpower have fewer options, mostly boiling down to these two: selling to a private developer to convert to housing (potentially involving demolition of the original building if it is architecturally nonviable), or–if the building and parcel are too small–simply giving the building away to another more vibrant religious community.

      I’d love to know about your Perry Township example. Having grown up in the area, I can think of at least a half-dozen churches that have closed in the last 10-15 years, none of which had a hard time finding a new church tenant…not always (but usually) Chin/Burmese Baptist.

      In the end, it really does come down to the building and what you say about the fungibility of real estate. Function follows form. The closest that most Mainline Protestant denominations get to a megachurch are usually their flagship structure (often the cathedral) in or near a downtown, and maybe one other parish in a very stable, affluent area. Obviously there are exceptions: Indy’s Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral (christened as such due to the endowment established by Eli Lilly) is nowhere near as big of a building as All Saints or St. Paul’s on the northside. But Lilly money talks. Meanwhile, the Mainline suburban locations, often built between 1950 and 1975, are usually much much smaller…yet, if my research is any evidence, are bigger than they need. Given that the median Sunday attendance of an Episcopal church is only 35, I’d say the average suburban Episcopal church is about 4X to 5X bigger than it needs to be. If it’s a sturdy building with at least some architectural interest on a desirable piece of land, chances are that it’ll find a private buyer without having to resort to the donation if (or when) it closes. And Mainline Protestant church buildings, even in the blandest of suburbia, usually pass all these litmus tests.

      The bigger question, I suppose, is what might happen if (or again when) certain non-denominational megachurches fold. A smart developer will still no doubt find a use, but since these buildings are usually bulkier, plainer and on greenfield sites farther from population centers (cheap land with more easy space for all those cars to park) , it’s not liekly they’ll get the same repurposing as a cute little limestone church with a red door. -I’ve seen a church-to-gym-to-church conversion in Raleigh NC. The sanctuary was where all the weights were (when a church moved back in, they took out all the mirrors on the walls) and the assembly room was for full-court basketball.

      Reply
  2. Steve P

    Good read, like always. I think congregations that can reverse this transaction — to allow non parochial uses of their worship buildings — will eventually learn another way of incubating new life in the community.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      yeah, it’s pretty common that older, bigger buildings in urban areas simply have far more office and classroom space than they need. Leasing it out to micro-tenants (where the church almost becomes a sort of co-working space) is a great idea for those underutilized rooms. Or wings.

      And somehow, with this example in Orange VA, I don’t think the town is worse off with one less buffet. They’ll survive.

      Reply
    2. Steve P

      An Italian buffet in a small town might be an antidote to hunger born from isolation, especially for solo elderly who might forgo self care and grocery shopping once they leave the commerce of relationships.
      Lasagna = love? haha

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Have no fear, Steve. While the buffet may be gone and converted to a church (and the reviews suggest it was the weakest link to Mario’s Pizzeria), the restaurant’s other offerings still remain, through table service. So now the lasagna is more likely to be freshly baked, rather than sitting under a heat lamp all day. Probably a win-win.

        Reply

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