Preservation Magazine, Winter 2020

President's Note: Preserving Sacred Places

Paul Edmondson.

As noted by Rev. Tim Safford in our feature article on Philadelphia’s Christ Church, many historic places of worship and their congregations face immense challenges, including declining membership and the responsibility of caring for extensive and complex structures. With hard work and creative community engagement, Christ Church is meeting these challenges, but across the country thousands of houses of worship close each year, many of them important local landmarks. Those closures don’t just affect individual congregations, but also the social services, arts, and other community groups that use those buildings and serve their neighbors. And because these structures often represent longstanding community anchors, their loss can forever change the character of a city, town, or neighborhood.

For more than 30 years, a small but effective organization known as Partners for Sacred Places has been working to help preserve historic churches, synagogues, and other places of worship by demonstrating their value as not only religious assets, but also community assets—and by identifying ways to sustain these landmarks through the engagement of constituencies extending far beyond their congregations.

Partners for Sacred Places and the National Trust have worked together for years in a variety of ways, but our partnership entered a new era of impact in 2016 with an extraordinary gift from the Lilly Endowment, allowing the two organizations to establish the National Fund for Sacred Places. Through the National Fund, Partners for Sacred Places provides planning grants, technical assistance, and capacity-building support, while the National Trust provides preservation expertise and capital grants up to $250,000 to help congregations restore and preserve historic places of worship. With funding renewed by Lilly this year, by 2023 the National Trust and Partners for Sacred Places will have provided $20 million in capital grants to about 100 recipients, with another $7 million in planning grants and direct support provided by Partners for Sacred Places.

The beneficiaries of this support—the largest grant fund ever administered by the National Trust—are as varied and unique as the communities and congregations they serve and the history, architecture, and craftsmanship they represent. They include the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña in San Antonio; Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Virginia; Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Milwaukee; and Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin Buddhist Temple in Honolulu—just to give a few examples.

A colleague of mine likes to say that preservation works best as a communal act—something that we do together, and something that brings us together. There is no better example than our collaboration with Partners for Sacred Places, with the Lilly Endowment, and with the many congregations and communities engaged in helping to save our historic sacred places.

Paul Edmondson, National Trust President and CEO

Paul Edmondson was the president & CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2018-2023.

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