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Home was once a house of worship

Feeling at home in former churches It's divine: More moving into former churches

When Ken Lew comes in from his porch, he walks in the footsteps of thousands of parishioners. When he relaxes in his living room, he does so where worshipers once paused to greet one another before taking their pew.

As he looks heavenward from his top-floor library, he gazes into the recesses of what used to be a 20-foot-tall bell tower. And though he lives just blocks from bustling Coolidge Corner, the green space around his building, complete with a baptismal font in one of the garden beds, feels like a reflective oasis.

Which is all as it should be, since the building he calls home used to be St. Mark's Methodist Church.

Lew and his wife, Nancy, bought their unfinished condominium just after the church's 1980 conversion. They wanted to keep the original wood floors, he said, but they were riddled with hundreds of burn marks from parishioners' cigarettes. When they refinished the floors, most of the marks were erased, he said, but a few remain to this day, 25 years after they moved in, and about 125 years after the church was built.

''It's not so much the architecture," but details such as those ''that tell you something about the people" who attended the church, he said.

Churches stand as part of a city's literal as well as historical landscape. Because of their mission, they are often found in prominent locations -- St. Mark's close to Coolidge Corner, and the former Sts. Peter and Paul on Broadway in the heart of South Boston, for example -- designed to be noticed.

''These buildings are local landmarks, and they do anchor their communities," said Marilyn Fenollosa, a senior program officer at the northeast office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which recently listed several Boston churches on its ''most endangered" list. The buildings ''still will be signposts, really the center of the community, even though people can't get into them," she said.

Today's dwellers of former churches confirm this. Sts. Peter and Paul just closed in 1995, and resident Paul Henry says people in the neighborhood frequently recount their memories of growing up in the church. But even at St. Mark's, which closed in the mid-1970s, the building retains a public draw. Only this spring, Lew said a woman in a veil came and tapped at their sliding glass door, which used to be one of the main entrances. ''She asked, 'Is this a church? Is there a service here?' I said I'm sorry, this isn't a church, it's a condominium!" he said, laughing.

Lew and Henry are part of a club that only stands to grow: those who live in converted churches. Living in closed churches isn't a new concept, but it causes some people to think twice, said Mary Kelleher, a realtor who sold several units in the former Sts. Peter and Paul church in South Boston. Sacred space -- where many prayers have been said, many people welcomed into the world through baptism and grieved at funerals -- often is considered a realm away from life's quotidian activities.

But with the closing of more Boston churches, many of which have been identified as historically significant, many more people may have the opportunity to ask themselves: Could I live in a church?

Christine Sawyer, who until recently lived in another condo at the old St. Mark's owned by her boyfriend, Gary Shechtman, says she very much felt like they were living in a church every time she entered the building's main entrance, with its ornate mahogany woodwork and carpeted halls and stairways.

''Coming in, you feel like you have to be quiet, or if you're running up the stairs you're going to get in trouble," she said.

Still, she said, she always felt right at home -- even though home's ceilings range from 16 to 30 feet, which isn't unusual for church-converted units.

Architecturally, ''these are buildings that have a more heroic scale than [a] day-to-day one," said Youngmin Jahan, a principal architect at Gund Partnership in Cambridge. Those types of units can be bought ''not for spiritual inspiration," per se, she said, but because people are looking for character in their homes.

Many church conversion dwellers said that was exactly what they loved in their home -- its unusual character -- even if that wasn't what they were looking for in the first place.

Henry was living in the South End when he began thinking about finding a place with more room. While he was looking, he was also traveling frequently for work, and cabs to the airport would take him along Broadway, past the former Sts. Peter and Paul church, which was in the process of being converted into condominiums. Although he really didn't want to live in South Boston, he said, he couldn't help noticing the work on the church and the beauty of the building.

He decided to go to an open house at the project one Sunday afternoon. As he was leaving, he ran into Kelleher, the realtor, who asked if he'd seen a first-floor duplex. ''I walked into the unit and it was exactly what I was looking for," he said. ''I fell in love." He made an offer that day and has lived there a little more than a year.

Henry, who has been a lifelong churchgoer and at various times an usher and a reader, says he didn't hesitate to live in a former church.

''There's no weirdness at all," he said. ''I'm a great advocate of adaptive uses for buildings, and I think that church served a purpose as a home for parishioners, and now it serves a purpose as a residence."

For some, though, a church's conversion is painful. Eleanor Bart was a longtime parishioner at St. Aidan's, the Brookline church the Kennedy family attended, which was closed in 1999. The church and its grounds were sold to the Planning Office for Urban Affairs of the Boston Archdiocese, a nonprofit developer. Though the development has run into legal problems, there are plans to create nine luxury condominiums in the church building, and three other mixed-income buildings, with as many as 50 affordable units.

Even after Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley issued a certificate of ''relegation to profane use," transforming the church to non-sacred ground, Bart still feels the church's presence in her life.

''I think not only myself but other parishioners feel very sad that the church is closed," she said. ''It's a sacred place, and I do feel bad that people will be living there. I try not to go by the church anymore."

Lisa Alberghini, executive director of the planning office, says she understands the pain of former parishioners, but believes in the ability of churches to give to the community in a new way.

''In my mind, this is what the church is about. It's walking the walk. For me, the fact that I'm Catholic makes it more special especially in this time of challenge."

Kelleher, the real estate agent who first showed Paul Henry his condo in Sts. Peter and Paul, and describes herself as a ''recovering Catholic," said life in a converted church may provide respite from the cacophony of city life.

''My feeling when I went in there was it just felt like a sanctuary," she said. ''I don't find it sacrilegious. . . . Your home is a place of spirituality for many people."

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