The Research

04 Dec

church of transfiguration, buffalo

In religious symbolism and ritual practices, portals mark passage from secular to the sacred precincts. But what of a portal like that located in Buffalo’s abandoned Transfiguration Church, which closed in 1993. What kinds of passages are suggested here? Victor Turner refers to portals as among those liminal zones in which the individual or society is “betwixt and between” states. And if the portal is ruined? Where does it take us when we pass through? What are the meanings of abandoned, ruined, demolished, converted, or transformed churches? What happens, “after church”?

Abandoned churches are among the ruins of modernity. A wave of church closures in Europe and North America in the past half-century has produced a landscape with sacred remains. Boarded up windows, rusted hinges, broken stained glass, twisted crosses, paint-flaked clapboard, garbage strewn naves, broken altars and pews – what do such sights/sites tells us about contemporary religion? How does the presence of ruined places of worship in our visual landscape reflect or project the state of the spiritual landscape?

dublin, church resturantAbandonment, of course, does not necessarily bring down the curtain on a place’s religious significance but can instead be the first act in a larger, longer social drama: a synagogue becomes a mosque; a Hopi kiva, the centre piece of a national park; a city-center church, a thriving restaurant and pub, as with Dublin’s high-end Church Restaurant, pictured here. Historically considered, religious sites and buildings have often been built by one religion and later appropriated by another. In addition, religious architecture, built for liturgical purposes, may be converted into a theatre, home, or condominium. Like people, buildings can be converted, bringing about a sense of heightened emotion and dramatic transformation.

What, if anything, of the sacred remains when a church is converted to secular use? Is the history and memory of its sacred past a trace that gives the seemingly secular a presence it would otherwise lack? Do converted places of worship reveal a break from a socially organic religious past characteristic of modernity? Or they invested with a sense that something of value has endured? Or has been lost?

This research explores the process of un- and re-making that can overtake consecrated buildings and locales. Even when this process seems to propel a site from sacred to secular, sacralized residues, such as stories and cemeteries, may remain. Using a combination of ethnographic, visual, and historical methods, we are examining abandonment and transformation at sacred sites selected to illustrate the range of transformative possibilities. Typically, research on sacred places has focused on statically conceived symbolic meanings of religious architecture. This project emphasizes moments of change in the uses and meanings of sacred places.

The aims of the research include:

– catalogue the types of transformation taking place as a result of church closure
– understand the complex forces (religious, economic, political) that shape the transformational process at sacred sites
– record stories and document the processes surrounding the disposal or transition of churches and other sacred sites
– reflect on how changes in the use and ownership of sacred sites influence collective religious identities and the contemporary spiritual landscape

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