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Historic Harlem Churches Face Declining Membership, Deteriorating Landmarks

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Congregations across the country are facing waning numbers. A Gallup poll reported that in 2020, membership at religious centers dropped below 50% for the first time in history.

In Harlem, church leaders are fighting to hold on to the iconic buildings that give us a stained glass glimpse into the past. The higher the spire, the closer to God -- that was the philosophy at the turn of the 20th century, when Harlem stepped into its heyday. But today, pews grow cold.

"Of course, in a building that is not being used, it tends to deteriorate," said Rev. Patrick Williams, Priest in Charge at the sprawling St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

St. Luke's closed its doors in 2015, when the diocese decided to merge its dwindling congregation with St. Martin's 20 blocks away. St. Martin's then closed for renovations, pushing parishioners to St. Mary's. St. Luke's was listed for sale in 2020.

"It's something that you don't take lightly," Williams said. "There are generations of memories in this place. It is something that you do when you really don't have other options on the table."

St. Luke's is still on the market, with the listing lowered from a $16 million ask down to $12 million.

"We've documented that we've lost about 120 faith-based organizations in the last 10 years. That's not good," said Valerie Jo Bradley, president of the Save Harlem Now! organization.

A vacant lot now sits on Amsterdam Avenue where Childs Memorial Temple Church of God once stood. It was the site of Malcolm X's funeral. Its sale and subsequent demolition is currently under investigation by the state.

A soon-to-be condominium building on Madison Avenue in East Harlem was once Metro Community United Methodist Church.

As an historic landmark, St. Luke's cannot be torn down, but it can be repurposed.

"Perhaps there's a housing component that could be developed in St. Luke's," Bradley suggested, "which would then support the other kinds of adaptive uses that could be created in the space."

St. Philip's Episcopal Church has successfully leased part of its property to a school, which Rev. Canon Terence Lee said is helping with much-needed repairs to the sacristy.

"I don't think that has been renovated since this church was built in 1911," Lee said, "so that's a challenge. And then, of course, you always have roofing issues."

St. Philip's once boasted a congregation of thousands. It is now down to fewer than 200 dedicated parishioners, but Lee leans on legacy to help.

"We've been very fortunate that people give money to the church that I've never met," Lee said, "because they've been baptized or their family has some kind of connection to the church."

Not all Harlem churches are suffering for support. At First Corinthian Baptist Church, the congregation is growing under the leadership of Rev. Michael Walrond, Jr. The mental health clinic on site there has a waiting list for services.

READ MORE: Mount Sinai Partners With Black Churches To Address Mental Health

"We were intentional about what we did and we wanted to make sure that mental health and mental health access would be free," Walrond said.

Lee admits modernization is a must, as he and other clergy reflect on how to reach a new generation of faithful followers.

"We don't exist for ourselves," Lee pointed out. "We exist for those who have not come through the doors of the church. So what are we doing to attract them?"

"We're still at a point which we need safe spaces for Black people, in particular," Williams added, "and we need places where people can come and refresh themselves and be prepared for the world in which we are living right now."

Williams looks forward to reopening St. Martin's safe space this spring, with a newly completed bell tower, and new grant funding from the Landmarks Conservancy.

If you have a tip about the happenings in Harlem, please reach out to CBS2's Jessi Mitchell by clicking here.

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