It takes a lot of work to put God’s house on the market.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore is about to embark on a yearslong plan to consolidate the number of parishes in the city and parts of Baltimore County from 61 to 23, a restructuring that will shutter about 30 Catholic worship sites. The new parishes will decide what happens next to the unused churches in the areas they serve, leaving the door open for some of the buildings to eventually be sold.

However, churches aren’t just surplus commercial real estate to Nolan McCoy, director of facilities for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. They are holy places, he said, filled with sacred objects and even human remains that must be handled with dignity and in accordance with Maryland and Catholic canon law. The structures often hold historical and architectural significance and require special care. The land beneath them is subject to certain deed restrictions that limit what they can be used for long after Catholic leaders let them go.

The process for selling worship sites is so meticulous that it can take up to a decade to complete, McCoy said.

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Here’s everything you need to know about selling — and buying — a Catholic church.

What’s the going rate for a church building?

The value of a building is often simplified in the real estate industry to a monetary sum. That’s not how the Catholic Church thinks about its property holdings.

“Our focus isn’t on economics,” McCoy said. Catholic leaders will ask potential buyers to submit proposals for what they would like to do with a building along with their offers. Special consideration will be given to those who are planning to use the space in a way that benefits the community, he said.

When it comes to the dollars and cents, property brokers look at factors like the capacity of the sanctuary and other square footage like classrooms or a commercial kitchen, said Stephen Ferrandi and Barb Bindon. The business partners operate one of the region’s most active firms for religious real estate transactions, PraiseBuildings Religious Property Brokerage.

Many urban churches were built at a time when people walked to Mass and thus lack parking lots, which lowers the value drastically, Ferrandi said.

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And it is a “universal truth” across religions and denominations that these buildings have deferred maintenance, Bindon said. Sometimes the buildings require roof repairs, a fresh coat of paint or a new boiler before they are ready to go on the market.

Other worship sites in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. metro area can command a high asking price because the land is considered valuable to developers and congregations.

McCoy said the archdiocese will likely hire a third-party appraiser to determine a fair asking price for any buildings that are sold through a bidding process. Proceeds from the sale will go to the local parish, he said.

What exactly is included in the sale?

About 30 days before settlement, the archdiocese will bring in liturgical consultants to remove sacred items in a church such as altars, confessional rails, relics and stations of the cross, as well as pews, artwork and stained glass. Items may follow the congregation to its new home parish to symbolically bridge the community’s history and future.

Some sacred pieces may be sold to other Catholic churches through specialty brokers and designers. Others may go into storage, McCoy said.

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Four Baltimore City churches that are closing as part of the consolidation — Corpus Christi, St. Patrick (Broadway), St. William of York and St. Ann — contain burial sites.

It is not yet clear whether those buildings will eventually be sold. If they are, Catholic Church leaders say, they plan to follow Maryland law by conducting a search for close living relatives. With their permission, the archdiocese would reinter the remains at a new location of the family’s choosing or offer space in New Cathedral Cemetery, McCoy said.

The archdiocese’s final step before settlement is a liturgical process called deconsecration, a canonical process that essentially removes the building’s designation as a holy place.

Who typically buys former churches?

Interested buyers usually are other religious groups, although developers and small businesses have been known to repurpose churches over the years.

One former Catholic church in the city, St. James the Less, was occupied for years by a small but determined Christian congregation called Urban Bible Fellowship. These days, the building has fallen into disrepair and is back on the market. By contrast, the former St. Michael’s church complex was converted into the trendy taproom Ministry of Brewing and luxury apartments.

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The church that was once St. James the Less is seen on May 7, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Church buildings, particularly historic ones, can be expensive to maintain and often lack modern amenities such as air conditioning or dedicated parking. Traditional lenders typically scrutinize smaller congregations’ finances in hopes of avoiding the optics nightmare that comes with foreclosing on a religious group.

Some larger names in banking consider congregations with fewer than 200 members to be “unbankable,” Ferrandi and Bindon said. Local banks and credit unions affiliated with specific denominations are more likely to work with those groups.

Loan terms are often customized according to religious affiliation based on how often leadership within the denomination changes. Others require multiple co-signers besides the pastor. Banks are typically looking for a minimum down payment of 20% and up to 40%. The smaller the congregation, the bigger the deposit needs to be, the brokers said.

What can’t you do with a former Catholic church?

Ferrandi was driving to Boston when he first spotted a steeple on a strip club.

The former church in New England had been rechristened as “Sinners,” an adult entertainment venue.

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That’s unlikely to happen to the churches sold by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. McCoy said Church leaders attach a number of restrictions to the deeds as a condition of sale.

The list of restrictions borrows from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops guidelines, designed to ensure the properties will never be used for activities that conflict with Catholic teachings. Examples include certain medical procedures such as abortions, the advocacy or practice of Satanism or atheism, adult performances or escort services, and the sale of drug paraphernalia, conference spokesperson Chieko Noguchi said in an email.

Often, there are restrictions on using a former church to sell alcohol. The Ministry of Brewing was possible because St. Michael’s was built and operated not by the archdiocese but by a religious order of priests called the Redemptorists, which did not have an alcohol prohibition on the building.

Ministry of Brewing in East Baltimore was able to open because its seller didn't have restrictions on future building use. Another example of a church-turned-bar is Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, pictured. (Hallie Miller)

Some worship sites have historic landmark designations or fall within a local and federal historic district, said Lauren Schiszik, acting executive director of Baltimore City’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP).

Five of the Catholic churches slated to close are located in CHAP’s district, and 11 fall within the National Register of Historic Places. One, St. Vincent de Paul, built in 1840 and located at the south end of Interstate 83, carries a historic landmark designation.

Historic groups would stay involved to oversee changes made to the exterior of buildings and in some cases have the ability to prevent changes.

If St. Vincent de Paul comes on the market, the buyer would need to bring proposed changes, additions and alterations to CHAP and the Maryland Historical Trust for review and approval.

Being on the National Register doesn’t trigger any additional restrictions on changes to the property, unless the federal government is assisting with funding, licensing, or permitting. In other words, such a designation doesn’t guarantee preservation.

“That consideration doesn’t necessarily mean the property is going to be saved,” Schiszik said.