Skip to Main Content

LSS240: 2018 Student Guide: Future and Potential Reuse

Created by students in LSS240 - Spring 2018

So What Happens Now? Looking Towards the Future of St. Mary's

The future of St. Mary’s of the Assumption is uncertain. It has officially been listed for sale, but the diocese and city are tight-lipped about price, or any possible buyers. Still, St. Mary’s is not facing this fate alone. (In fact, St. John Cantius on Hawley Street, Northampton closed at the same time St. Mary’s did.) Across the country, Catholic churches are closing, as Americans are becoming less and less religious. As a result, communities are left wondering what can be done with these meaningful and monolithic structures. Following the closing of a church, there are two main options; the building could be demolished, or it could be repurposed. In the case of St. Mary’s demolition would be tragic, and is highly unlikely with its status within the Elm Street Historic district. The centuries old building is an architectural wonder, and a corner stone of the town’s landscape, and has been a site of personal importance for townspeople for generations. However, repurposing the sight would be an uphill battle. Explore this page to learn about the changing nature of Catholicism, the national trend of repurposed churches; its unique challenges and opportunities.

Photo Gallery of Renovated Churches

Photo courtesy of Dwell and Jim Tschetter

Photo courtesy of Mental Floss and Design Top News

Photo courtesy of Dwell and Foxtons

Photo courtesy of Mental Floss and TEDx Vasastan

Photo courtesy of Mental Floss and Mattkingtheskater/Panoramio

Photo courtesy of CNN 

Looking Local

In the case of St. Mary's, with its massive size and price tag, renovation to a private home seems unlikely. Additionally, while the building and land have been desanctified, meaning they are not longer a sacred religious site, the building cannot be used for anything "profane." The term "profane" includes the sale of alcohol, ruling the space out from being renovated into a bar or club. Furthermore, the site sits within the Elm Street Historic District, meaning the structure cannot be demolished, and their will be strict limitations to the changes that can be made to the building. This further limits the options for repurposing. The Elm Street Historic District also subjects the site to a demolition delay, meaning destruction would have to wait a full year once a demolition permit was given giving townspeople ample opportunity to protest and try to stop demoltion.

Lastly, it is important to note that the main church is not the only structure on the site. The rectory, and home to the parish offices, sits next store to the church. The rectory is actual still open and in use today. It would be much easier to repurpose the rectory, than the church. It is already being used as offices, and because of its smaller size could easily be transformed into a space for another use. 

Catholicism Changing in Graphs

Pew Research Center,

Pew Research Center,

Pew Research Center,

Pew Research Center,


Adams, Dan. “Turning Churches into Housing a Unique Challenge for Developers .”, The Boston Globe , 21 Apr. 2015, 
Lipka, Michael. “A Closer Look at Catholic America.” Pew Research Center, The Pew Research Center, 14 Sept. 2015, 
Loisel, Laurie. “Local Catholics Pledge to Continue Fight for St. Mary's Church in Northampton.” NORTHAMPTON - Local Catholics Fighting to Reopen a Landmark City Church They Feel Was Wrongly Closed Five Years Ago Are, Daily Hampshire Gazette, 7 May 2015, 
Majchrowicz, Michael. “Former St. Mary's Church in Downtown Northampton Now for Sale.” Daily Hampshire Gazette, Daily Hampshire Gazette, 6 Feb. 2017, 
Newberry, Laura. “Northampton: Developers Unveil Plans for Closed St. John Cantius Church That Include Restaurant, Retail, Senior Living Apartments.”,, 25 Feb. 2016, 
specified, No author. “Local Catholics Pledge to Continue Fight for St. Mary's Church in Northampton.” NORTHAMPTON - Local Catholics Fighting to Reopen a Landmark City Church They Feel Was Wrongly Closed Five Years Ago Are, Daily Hampshire Gazette, 7 May 2015, 
Wormald, Benjamin. “America's Changing Religious Landscape.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, The Pew Research Center, 12 May 2015,

Repurposed Churches: A National Trend

  • Added costs
  • Design challenges 

Repurposing churches is particularly challenging. Often the building have been left in disrepair, because either the building has sat empty while congregations, communities, cities, and corporations fought, or, because while the church was struggling to stay afloat, they were not able to afford the upkeep of such old and large structures. Additional costs come from the design challenges churches present. Traditionally large structure, with vast cavernous interiors, and details like multi-stories stain glass windows, churches do not easily adapt to common structures like housing. 

  • Community value 
  • Historic importance 
  • Architectural importance 

Despite the many challenges, repurposing churches offer unique opportunities. Churches carry with them a lot of community value, as sights of Baptisms, weddings, and funerals for generations. While for some, this personal value could be lost when the church seizes to be used for religious purposes, for many this sentimental value could remain in a repurposed structure, as long as the building still remains. Additoanlly, churches tend to be magnificent and historical structures. Repurposing the building offers the opportunity keep these places of often historical significance, and architectural feats.   

The Story of St. John Cantius

St. John Cantius closed with St. Mary's in 2010, and has remained empty ever since. In 2016, a Philadelphia developer proposed the site be transformed in senior living apartments and retail space. In the plan, the church was returned to its "original condition" and would be opened to the public as an open plan restaurant, and on the sites remaining land 60 one to two bedroom apartments would be built. The developer, Sacenti, who has been responsible for a number of similar ventures (churches to housing) projects in the greater Philadelphia area, insisted that he wanted wants to maintain the historic integrity of the building. Unfortunately this plan for the site seems to have fallen through, or stalled, somewhere between the sale of the building from the Diocese of Springfield, and the City of Northampton's approval for the housing project. An update more recent than 2016 on the proposed plan cannot be found. 

Photo Courtesy of MassLive and Laura Newberry,

Catholicism Changing

The demographics of Catholicism as a whole are rapidly changing, even as the religion itself remains rooted in millenniums old traditions. For instance, overall, research shows Catholicism and other Christian denominations are steadily declining, while more people are idenitfying with non-christian religisons, or no affiliation at all. This overall decline of people who identify with Catholicism contributes to the closing of Catholic churches, with smaller parishes, not as many churches can be supported. However, rising secualar idenity is only half the story. 

In the 21st century, immigrants make up large portions of the U.S Catholic population.As of 2015, 27% of U.S Catholics were born outside of the United States, with 22% of U.S Catholics coming from elsewhere within the Americas. Hispanics make up 35% of U.S Catholics, a percentage point that has grown by 5 since 2007. This growth is extremely important, because it points toward the future of the Catholic church, as Hispanics become the center for growth for the Catholic church in the U.S. If current trends continue, Hispanics will soon make up the majority of U.S Catholics. 

As demographics have shifted so have geographic location. Catholic hubs for the U.S used to be in the Northeast and Midwest. These were centers for Catholic life, dense regions for the church. Now, those hubs are shifting South and Southwest. From 2007 to 2014 Catholics living in the Northeast and Midwest have gone down by 3%, while Catholics living in the South and Southwest have risen by 3%. This trend is particularly interesting as it relates to St. Mary's. Perhaps the church is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and if it existed further south, it would still have a lively congregation. 

Further reading

Only Time Will Tell

Photo courtesy of the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Kevin Gutting