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The Rev. Peter Morales of the Unitarian Universalist Association inside the Boston property that the denomination is selling.

Gretchen Ertl • New York Times,

More churches are downsizing, selling property

  • Article by: Michael Paulson
  • New York Times
  • March 15, 2014 - 7:28 PM

– The American Unitarian Association, peopled and powered by this city’s Brahmin elite, announced its presence here in 1886 with a grand and stately headquarters at the very top of Beacon Hill, right next door to the Statehouse.

If anyone doubted the denomination’s might, its next move made it clear: In 1927, strapped for space, the Unitarians finished building a new home next to the capitol on the other side, even persuading the legislature to change the street’s numbering so they could take their address with them.

But the Unitarian Universalist Association, as the denomination is now known, is selling its headquarters building, as well as two grand homes and an office building it owns in the same neighborhood. It is leaving for a section of South Boston the city has designated an “innovation district,” home to up-and-coming technology and arts businesses.

Sales bring in money

The move — expected to bring tens of millions of dollars to the denomination — puts the Unitarians in increasingly familiar company. Multiple religious denominations are simultaneously downsizing and raising money by selling longtime headquarters in expensive neighborhoods. The moves come at a time when increasing secularization is taking a toll on many religious institutions, although most say the reasons for their relocations are not solely financial.

Churches moved frequently from the colonial era through the 19th century, but less often in the 20th century, as they became wealthier and acquired better holdings, according to James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University. But now denominations are pondering whether some properties “have outlived their usefulness.”

“They’re finding themselves pressed for finances, and making some hard choices about property, and so we’re seeing more sales in the last decade than we had for the last century,” Hudnut-Beumler said.

Catholic dioceses have been systematically unloading real estate for years, in part because of the financial toll of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. In Boston, the Catholic archdiocese sold its leafy campus, with a three-story home for the archbishop, a tomb for one of his predecessors and a chancery for the staff, in 2004; the church moved its headquarters to a suburban office park near a highway interchange. In the years since, other dioceses have sold or said they intended to sell their chanceries. In most cases the reason was financial, but in some cases it was diocesan growth or a need for office modernization.

Renting out excess space

Some denominations are trying to keep their headquarters in place by finding ways to generate revenue from under­used space. The Episcopal Church, based in Manhattan, rents out excess space in its headquarters building.

The Unitarian Universalists’ sale stands out because of that denomination’s long association with Boston. On Thursday, the denomination plans to close on the sale of its headquarters and the two guesthouses to a developer who would most likely convert the buildings to high-end condominiums.

“Given the changes that are happening in religion today,” the denomination’s president, the Rev. Peter Morales, said, “we all have to move to the innovation district.”

© 2014 Star Tribune