Europe's Perishing Parishes Dutchman Helps to Liquidate Dying Churches

A drastic exodus from the church is underway in the Netherlands. With two churches shuttered each week, one man has become the country's top advisor on how to repurpose the once holy objects. Some buildings are demolished, while others find new life as mosques, stores and even recreation centers.

The church pews will be sold according to size. The shortest ones, at 3.6 meters (12 feet) long, can be purchased for €40 ($52), the longer six-meter pews for €60. Churchgoers in the Dutch town of Bilthoven have already carried 17 pews out of their sanctuary.

The pews will not be a problem, says Marc de Beyer. But the organ and the baptismal font weighing hundreds of kilos at the back of the church will be more difficult.

Marc de Beyer is an art historian in Utrecht, located about a half an hour by train from Amsterdam, but one could also call him a liquidator. He's a man who helps shut down churches. When a parish is dissolved, when a church is shuttered, de Beyer is there. And he has a lot to do.

Some 4,400 church buildings remain in the Netherlands . But each week, around two close their doors forever. This mainly affects the Catholics , who will be forced to offload half of their churches in the coming years.

"And that's just the beginning," says de Beyer.

His voice echoes in the vaulted building, where the dim autumn sunshine falls sideways through the window panes. De Beyer stands behind a block as large as a freezer chest. Until July 1, 2006, it was the altar at the St. Lawrence church in Bilthoven, north of Utrecht. But on that day the church become real estate and the altar where believers had been blessed, married and mourned became a hunk of cement.

At first, there was discussion about converting the church into a community center. But the Catholics wanted to sell quickly, and a project company bought the consecrated property. In the coming year, St. Lawrence will be demolished, making room for 62 apartments in its place.

"Architecturally, the loss can be borne," de Beyer says. The church was built in the 1960s, when the Catholic communities in Bilthoven and De Bilt grew so rapidly that the two districts needed three churches between them. It was built quickly and simply.

Empty Pews

For years the number of faithful  has been declining. The trend has swept across all of Western Europe, with churches forced to close in France and Belgium too. But in the Netherlands, Christianity's retreat from society has been particularly drastic. The Protestant Church alone loses some 60,000 members each year. At this rate, it will cease to exist there by 2050, church officials say.

The trend has led to the mergers of churches from several communities. St. Lawrence in Bilthoven has consolidated its congregation with that of eight other churches. But none of these amalgamations need more than one church, one organ, and one altar crucifix. All the other chalices, crosses and pews need to be disposed of. The problem, de Beyer says, is that holy items don't sell particularly well. The buildings themselves quickly find new renters, though.

In Helmond, some 80 kilometers south of Bilthoven, a supermarket even moved into a defunct church in 2001. A bookstore has opened in a former Dominican church in Maastricht, while in Utrecht and Amsterdam churches have been turned into mosques. Of the Netherlands' some 17 million citizens, about 850,000 practice Islam. Still, many other churches are simply being demolished.

For the last three years de Beyer has been closing down churches. He was there when a "strategy plan" was developed at the St. Catherine's Convent, a museum in Utrecht. Together with the foundation for religious art heritage, he has also written a handbook with instructions for what to do with holy artifacts in six steps -- from inventory to divestment. It has been distributed among the different parishes since April, and will soon be translated into English.

'The Best Solution'

Recently de Beyer attended a symposium in Germany, and soon he'll speak in Belgium. After all, churches aren't just dying in the Netherlands. When he reaches point 5.4 in his manual, entitled "demolition," people are often forced to catch their breath, he says.

"But when a church has little purpose, emotional value or historical significance that can be the best solution," de Beyer adds.

Still, de Beyer thinks of himself as a rescuer of temples. He wants to preserve their value. His instructions are meant to help distinguish between the valuable and the worthless. He often personally shows up to the churches to provide guidance and support. Pews and Bibles are usually sold to members of the congregation.

"Altars often find new places in Eastern Europe," says de Beyer. "There's a big demand there because new churches are always being built."

A few weeks ago one parish in Arnheim decided on a totally new use for its church, which had stood empty for some five years. In late November St. Joseph's church opened a skate park, with ramps and obstacles in the nave, charging €3.50 to spend a day skating between holy figures. Since then church attendance has been respectable.

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