House of God

Defunct churches are a hard sell in Germany

repurposing defunct churches in germany
The modern religion. Source: Uta Wagner for Handelsblatt

It took three years of construction and planning, but in 2013, one of Essen’s defunct churches was resurrected as a combination apartment building and kindergarten. Where parishioners once sought absolution at the Lukas Kirche, families now sit down to dinner and kids put on their raingear before heading out to the playground. Only the tall clock tower and modern stained glass windows serve as a reminder that the sterile, rectangular building was once a place of worship.

Three new floors were added to the church’s sanctuary and a once-complex staircase was reworked. An elevator was installed to make the 16 new abodes accessible. Since it opened, the former church has seen very little vandalism. “People identify with where they live,” says architect Wojciech Trompeta of the Essen-based architecture firm Heinrich Böll.

With church membership falling across Germany, church administrations have had to consolidate services into fewer buildings. Of the 46,000 churches across the country, about 800 are now no longer in use, according to the Fowid research group. The Lucas Church in Essen was just one of 106 closed by the city’s diocese alone over the past decade — only 58 have been sold off. But while the structures in other countries find new homes as trendy loft apartments, airy offices or even skate parks, finding new uses in Germany has been difficult.

Churches themselves have had to become creative. The diocese of Berlin signed a 99-year loan on the St. Agnes Church in the Kreuzberg district to art dealer Johann König, who spent €3 million renovating the gray cement house of god. In the Berlin borough Spandau, nine apartments have been rented above the nave in the Luther Church since 1997 without regard to the tenants’ religious beliefs. The church still operates, which puts residents just a few steps away from communion.

removing windows from defunct St. Barbara church in Essen, Germany
Removing windows from the St. Barbara Church in Essen, which was demolished. Source: DPA

Creativity may be the only solution for others who have taken the leap and bought a church for renovations. Rolf Schmidt has been having trouble unloading a Protestant church he owns in the town of Altena south of Dortmund in Germany’s Rust Belt. His health has kept him from realizing his plans of converting the building into apartments and now he can’t find anyone willing to shell out €180,000 for the 540-square-meter building, even though he’s throwing in the building permit at no cost.

He’s had plenty of interest, but most spook at the cost of inserting new floors into the sanctuary to avoid residents having to heat 10-meter-high apartments. Mr. Schmidt isn’t the only one struggling to absolve himself of a bad purchase. Andreas Bauer owns a church in picturesque Meckesheim near Heidelberg. He once wanted just shy of €1.4 million for the 500-square-meter building. Now he’d take €790,000. “That’s as low as I can go,” he says.

Mr. Bauer is a stonemason and tile layer who put his skills to use renovating the building which, he says, is the only way he could afford the needed upgrades. But now he’s suffering the same fate as so many other German church owners — plenty of interest but no bites. “I could give a guided tour every half hour,” he says. He doesn’t want the pocket change that could yield, he wants, like the 36 percent of the German population that claims to be atheist, to leave the church behind.

Maybe he’s being punished for the cardinal sin of greed.

Real estate broker Angelo Morrone in Saarland in southern Germany says it’s not greed that makes churches a hard sell. He’s been able to offload 30 in his career but said it was never easy. It always depended, he said, parroting that most popular of real estate sayings, on the location.

Reiner Reichel specializes on real estate, closed-end fund and system models for Handelsblatt. Andrew Bulkeley is an editor in Berlin for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: reichel@handelsblatt.com and a.bulkeley@handelsblattgroup.com

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