The first seven of 36 churches in Carbon and Schuylkill counties closed by the Allentown Diocese in 2008 have been sold and are slated to begin new lives – one as a catering business storage center.
The churches, in Tresckow, Carbon County, and in Kelayres, Tuscarora, Mahanoy City, Saint Clair and Minersville in Schuylkill County, sold for a fraction of their fair market values, according to tax assessment records in both counties.
But although it's not much, the money will be funneled back into the fold.
"Proceeds from the sales of these closed churches go to the parishes in each community that were formed by the mergers and consolidations two years ago," said diocese spokesman Matt Kerr.
For example, he said, the proceeds of the sale of St. Bartholomew's in Tresckow went to All Saints Church in McAdoo, which was formed by the merger of six parishes including St. Bartholo-mew's.
Tommy Trella, who owns Capriotti's Catering with his business partner Bob Veet, bought the former St. Bartholomew's Church, at 25 Maple St. in Tresckow, Banks Township, for $70,000 on Dec. 30, 2009.
The building is a couple of blocks down the street from the catering hall. They want to trade the almost three acres of land behind the church for a like-size parcel behind the catering hall.
We had looked at it when it first came on the market, about a year or so before that," Trella said. "But we didn't do anything – we weren't sure what we wanted to do."
Months later, they took a second look, and decided to buy.
"It's close to our business here, and we needed storage space. We're kind of landlocked here and we needed space, and with the land that was behind it ...," Trella said.
He and Veet have been in business 22 years; they built the 240-seat catering hall, at 1 E. Maple St., five years ago.
They bought the rectory along with the church and are renting that out as housing.
"We cleaned it up, cleaned it out and did some minor repairs," Trella said.
At first, they figured the church would make a nifty restaurant. But, Trella said, it is too small and would require too much renovation. So they are using it for storage.
Originally, they planned to convert the church as a dining venue.
"But to do a change-of-use, there would have had to be a lot of repairs, handicapped-accessibility, installing a new kitchen," Trella said. "With the size of it, we figured we'd only be able to seat about 70 people. That just wasn't feasible."
In addition, parking was a problem. The church has no parking lot.
"The church doesn't fit into our plans as of now," Veet said.
The real value, he said, is in the 2.69 acres of land behind the church.
"We're looking at building a new facility," Veet said. He said they are asking the township to swap the municipal land for a like amount behind the catering hall.
The parcel, the former Beaver-Banks Little League field, is big enough to build a bigger catering hall with enough parking, he said.
Veet said he and Trella would like to have the township use the church for public meetings, or as a place for private parties – the church halls where wedding receptions, birthdays, bridal and baby showers were once held have vanished with the church closings.
"We want to keep the church. We are not razing the church," Veet said. "We do know that it means a lot to people."
Meanwhile, Gregg Tirpak and his son Brian, both of Tamaqua, bought the former St. Bertha's church in Tuscarora on Feb. 18 for $30,000, according to Schuylkill County tax records. Efforts to reach the Tirpaks were unsuccessful.
The diocese merged 47 parishes in Carbon and Schuylkill counties in anticipation of a shortage of priests. At a special convocation on Feb. 28, 2007, priests learned about the projected reduction in their numbers: from 129 to 111 by June 30, 2010.
Kerr said 111 priests currently serve in the diocese. Nine parishes remain in Carbon County; 31 in Schuylkill.
In Carbon County, St. Stanislaus in Summit Hill; St. Ann's and SS. Peter and Paul in Lansford; Immaculate Conception, Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Nesquehoning; St. Mary's in Beaver Meadow and St. Nicholas in Weatherly and St. Bartholomew's Church in Tresckow all were closed.
In Schuylkill County, St. John the Baptist, St. Mary's and SS. Cyril and Methodius in Coaldale; Holy Family and Sacred Heart in New Philadelphia; St. Anthony's in Cumbola; Immaculate Conception in Kelayres; St. Kunegunda, St. Patrick's and St. Mary's in McAdoo; St. Michael's in Tresckow were among those closed.
Some parishes, including members of the former Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Nesquehoning, appealed the closures to the Vatican; rulings have yet to be handed down, Kerr said.
The former churches were stripped of their religious items. Stained glass windows, paintings and icons were removed and stored pending their sales via a Philadelphia online auction house. Priests who were buried on the grounds are being moved for burial elsewhere so the buildings can be sold.
The closed churches in Carbon County have been placed on the property tax rolls.