How the Sacred Sites program helps preserve UNY churches
Many of the local churches in the Upper New York (UNY) Conference are considered landmarks; several of our churches are over 100 years old. Over time, these church buildings face structural damages from the foundation to the roof, from the stained-glass windows to the steeples.
Our churches are more than just buildings; they are gathering places not only for congregations, but also, communities. These churches evoke meaning for Scouts groups or recovery groups that meet there weekly, for the couples that were married there, for the community members who rely on the food bank at the church, and for so many more.
What can be done, beyond bake sales and chicken barbeques, when a church building needs repairs that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars?
Some churches have endowments that help. There are also several grant programs. One of them is the New York Landmark Conservancy’s (Conservancy) Sacred Sites grant program.
The Conservancy, a private, nonprofit organization, offers financial and technical help to the owners of landmark properties. Its Sacred Sites Program works with congregations of all denominations throughout New York State to ensure the continuing use of their buildings.
The Sacred Sites provides congregations with matching grants for planning and implementing exterior restoration projects along with technical assistance and workshops. Since 1986 (when the program was founded), the program has pledged over 1,550 grants totaling more than $14.8 million to over 825 religious institutions statewide. Many of those grants were pledged to UNY churches.
The Sacred Sites grants program pledges matching grants twice a year. These grants are available to historic houses of worship that are listed either on the State/National Register of Historic Places or designated locally as a landmark by the town or city where the site is located. The Conservancy helps fund exterior work to a religious institution’s primary worship space and consulting projects (like architectural or engineering work). They do not fund work retroactively.
The most recent grant was pledged to Port Gibson United Methodist Church.
Port Gibson United Methodist Church
In October 2019, Port Gibson UMC members noticed several cracks along the exterior walls and other locations within the sanctuary. The Conservancy came and assessed the damages, estimating that the cost to repair them would be $115,000.
There would be many steps involved to start the repairs and the first would be for an architecture firm to draw up plans for the restoration.
Nancy Anderson, a member of Port Gibson UMC’s Board of Trustees, is the acting liaison from the Port Gibson UMC and spent many hours gathering paperwork for a Sacred Sites grant request. She worked with Colleen Heemeyer from the Sacred Sites Program to prepare a grant request of $7,500 for the architectural work.
Nancy said, “I am so impressed with the professionalism of the personnel at the Landmark Conservancy.
They are extremely patient with my questions, regardless of phone calls or emails. They respond promptly. They offer their assistance every step of the way. Working with them is a pleasure.”
Port Gibson plans to apply for more Sacred Sites grants to help cover the next steps in their project.
One fact to note is that churches need to try to match what the Conservancy pledges and most often the church then has to raise more funds to cover the cost of the project.
Colleen said, “We like it when our grants can leverage additional funding. A church can approach their congregation or members of the community and say for example, ‘We have an opportunity to be given a $25,000 grant, can you match?’ It’s a good campaign plug too.”
Since 1986, the Conservancy pledged almost $800,000 to UMC sites. There has been a wide array of projects in the UNY Conference funded in part by the Conservancy.
Cazenovia UMC and Ilion UMC
The Rev. Robert Wollaber has extensive experience with the Sacred Sites program—he applied for Sacred Sites grants for two different churches he served. The first two grants Rev. Wollaber applied for were for Cazenovia United Methodist Church. In 1987, the Conservancy pledged $1,000 for exterior restoration and in 1991, the Conservancy pledged $1,500 for emergency masonry work that was needed.
Over a decade later, Rev. Wollaber served the Ilion UMC (now Frankfort-Ilion: Morningstar United Methodist Church) and applied for a Sacred Sites grant in 2002 for the copper roof that was in desperate need of repair. The Conservancy pledged $4,000 toward this project.
Rev. Wollaber said, “It was a really nice experience working with the Landmark Conservancy. They’re very helpful. They provide all kinds of information in addition to help funding the physical project.”
Sarah Jane Johnson Memorial UMC
The Conservancy pledged $10,000 to Sarah Jane Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church in Binghamton in 2016 for protective glazing on the stain-glass windows in their gymnasium as well as restoration of the church doors.
Carol Cass, the Financial Secretary at Sarah Jane Johnson Memorial said, “Our church was built in the 1920s and the gymnasium was built before the sanctuary. The windows in the gym were starting to let in a lot of drifts, which was raising our heat bill significantly. Our church door was starting to look run down at the same time. The grant from the Sacred Sites grants were very helpful in these two projects. It was a lot of paperwork, but the staff at the Conservancy were so nice every step of the way. It was well worth it.”
Oneida First United Methodist Church
Russ Brewer, a trustee at Oneida First UMC has had a great experience with the Sacred Sites program. Oneida First is over 100 years old and the church members knew that work needed to be done to preserve the structure.
Russ applied for a Sacred Sites grant in 2018 to hire an architect and historian so they could find out exactly what needed to be done to upkeep the church.
The Conservancy pledged $3,500 to help fund this preparation work. The research conducted resulted in a full report of what needed to be done. This report would help the church hire a contractor and request more funding from the Conservancy.
Russ said, “It was determined that the exterior stonework and tower were deteriorating and needed to be addressed before anything else. The estimated cost for the project was $300,000.”
Russ applied for a Sacred Sites grant during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Conservancy pledged $25,000 toward this project.
Russ said, “There were a lot of delays during the pandemic, but the Conservancy continued to be helpful through the whole process.”
The church had to start a capital campaign to raise the additional funds needed to hire a contractor for the project.
Russ said, “We were prudent when starting this campaign. We could not do it for quite some time with the financial uncertainty prompted by the pandemic, so we waited.
When we finally started the campaign, we had the initial report from to 2018, which gave the church membership confidence to give toward the campaign.
We also used the fact that the Conservancy has pledged $25,000 toward the project as a lead.”
The contactor will be starting the stonework on the church’s exterior this fall.
Russ said, “This is not a once and done project; there are more phases of work that needs to be completed based on the findings from the 2018 report. We all realize it’s going to take time and we intend on applying for funding again through the Sacred Sites program.”
He continued, “Once you apply for one Sacred Sites grant, it becomes easier because you ae familiar with all that the Conservancy needs to consider tour grant request.”
Broad Street UMC
The Conservancy pledged $30,000 to Broad Street UMC in Norwich, NY in 2019 for roof and tower restoration.
Bernie Winsor, the trustee chair for Broad Street said, “Our building is special to me. I have been a member for 57 years. My husband and I were married here. Our steeple is 190 feet tall. It’s the tallest point in Chenango County. It’s a focal point for our community.
Applying for the grant was a lot of work. You need to provide information about the property itself, how the building is used for outside organizations, and all the details about the project including bids from contractors.
The $30,000 has been well used. We’ve actually spent almost $500,000…we probably have close to a million more to spend by the time this is done.
We have six stages of production. We have so far stabilized our steeple internally. We have an attic between the sanctuary and steeple. It used to be dangerous with no light and just beams. We now have beautiful platforms.
The masonry bricks were deteriorating, and they’ve been replaced.
We are now working on the underbelly of the roof and then ultimately redoing the shingling of the steeple the roof.”
Colleen was the Conservancy staff who did the site visit for Broad Street. She said, “Broad Street is a remarkable building that we were happy to help.”
Colleen continued, “I always come away from a grant round or a site visit inspired because of all the service I see these sites are doing—they are the ones working with people in recovery, the homeless, people in the margins, refugees, and natural disasters. All these sites are fulfilling needs. It gets back to my argument that you can’t do these services if your roof is leaking. It’s not just a leaky window—it’s feeding the hungry. On one hand you have architectural beauty, but you also have this whole other piece—community service!”
Does your church need restoration and can use the help from the Conservancy?
The deadline for the next round of grants is Dec. 15, 2022.
Click here to learn more about the Sacred Sites program.
Colleen Heemeyer at the Conservancy would be happy to help. You can contact her at 212-995-5260 x305 or via email at Colleen Heemeyer firstname.lastname@example.org.