*Editor’s note: This article was written to complete Katie Rosendale’s honors thesis at Calvin University. It was published on woodtv.com after Rosendale had accepted a position as a digital content producer for WOOD TV8 but before she began her term of employment.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In 1967, Norman Szubinski began to attend St. James Catholic Church. The Romanesque building on Grand Rapids’ West Side dates back to the late 1800s, when it was founded by Irish immigrants.

“It was a vibrant parish, a young parish,” Szubinski said. “Everybody worked together. It was kind of a family thing. It was what you want to see in a parish.” 

Soon, Szubinski became a pastoral associate.

The St. James building had its share of problems. For one, the plumbing in the church’s family center was less than ideal. 

“When they turned the system on, it felt like putting out a fire. It was raining, and it wasn’t pennies from heaven,” Szubinski said. “It was water!” 

In the end, they managed to fix the plumbing –– but as with all aging structures, upkeep was a game of whack-a-mole.

“We had to put a new roof on the rectory. We had to put a new roof on the school,” said Szubinski. “We needed funds to get that.” 

To raise the money, they started various events: a fish fry, a bingo program. The funds flowed in quickly. 

“We paid it off almost when it (the roof) was done,” Szubinski said. “The money came in that fast.”

St. James is still there, in a sense, sitting on Bridge Street. But it’s a far cry from the church’s vibrant past. In 2020, the historic church closed its doors in the face of COVID-19. Then MLive reported on June 4, 2022, that St. James would close for good, with leaders citing declining numbers of Catholics, an aging church population and the prohibitive cost of maintaining the building. St. James held one final Mass just a few days later, on June 7. The very next day, the property became available for purchase.

A sign marks the shuttered St. James Catholic Church as up for sale. (Courtesy Katie Rosendale)
A sign marks the shuttered St. James Catholic Church as up for sale. (Courtesy Katie Rosendale)

The case of St. James is not an isolated one. Church closures are becoming increasingly common in the United States. The fate of these former churches varies widely: Some sit vacant while others are transformed completely, becoming breweries or low-income apartments and everything in between. 

Where St. James will fit in this spectrum remains to be seen. Almost a year since its closure, the property is currently pending sale, but the public has little other information. The closure itself was painful for parish members, and the lack of information has been an added source of frustration. For community members with personal and ancestral ties to the church, the building’s future matters deeply.


Parish leaders attributed St. James’ closure to declining attendance. 

“The number of people committed to the Catholic faith continues to decline each year, which makes it impossible to provide buildings that are maintained properly and safe for worship/use,” Very Rev. Ronald Hutchinson, who served as the pastor, wrote in a June 5 bulletin. “And in the case of St. James Church, those committed were primarily elderly.” 

Ultimately, it was too expensive for the parish to maintain the aging St. James Church and the nearby Basilica of St. Adalbert.

Hutchinson likened closing a church to admitting defeat. 

“But as with anything in life,” he wrote in the bulletin, “reality can’t be ignored.” 

Most churches do not primarily focus on generating revenue, said George Lundskow, a sociologist at Grand Valley State University who studies social change and religion. This can ultimately hurt them. 

“Any given congregation could end up being really involved and beneficial to the community, but then they can’t afford the maintenance on (their building) sometimes,” Lundskow said.

Accordingly, church closures are becoming increasingly common in the United States. In 2019, more Protestant churches closed than opened, according to one study conducted by LifeWay Research. Researchers from the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research & Development, and Data estimated between 75 and 150 houses of worship close each week.

Many have linked these church closures to declining membership. As a whole, organized religion in the United States began to decrease in the 1990s and continued to decline through the 2000s, according to Lundskow.

“There was a fairly substantial shift away from specific religious identities to ‘spiritual but not religious,’ or they would say that they’re a believer but no particular affiliation,” Lundskow said. “You know: ‘I believe in God, but I don’t have any commitments to any sort of formal or organized religion.’” 

Today, about 29% of the American population is unaffiliated with any particular religion, according to a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center. The number of Christians has been dropping steadily, from 78% of U.S. adults in 2007 to 63% in 2021. 

The picture of American Catholicism is slightly more complicated. The number of American Catholics dropped between 2007 and 2014, according to the same report, but it has remained essentially stable in recent years. At the same time, Catholicism in the United States has lost more members due to religious switching than any other religion in the U.S. For every adult convert to Catholicism, 6.5 adults have left the faith, according to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center. 

Today, Lundskow said, many people tend to prefer “easygoing” congregations that leave matters up to individual judgment. 

“Anything with very specific doctrine, especially highly ritualized churches like Catholicism –– today, that tends to be a turnoff,” he said.


Daniel McCarthy of Frankfort, Michigan, has close historical ties to St. James: His ancestors were founding members.

“My father was an orphan. We had no idea what his ancestry was,” McCarthy said. “The paternal side of my family has always been a great mystery.” 

Accordingly, about 20 years ago, McCarthy began taking a “keen interest” in his maternal family history. 

“I think I kind of filled in the absence of information [on my father’s side] by concentrating on my mother’s side of the family: the O’Brien side,” he said. “That was all we had.” 

In 1814, Stephen O’Brien –– McCarthy’s great great grandfather –– was born in Ireland. Along with his brother, O’Brien emigrated to the United States in the early 1830s. They ended up in what is now Walker, Michigan –– right by today’s O’Brien Road near John Ball Zoo. O’Brien and his wife Jane Payton established a homestead there, where they had 240 acres of land and several children. 

In the late 1860s, the O’Briens became charter members of St. James, which was a largely Irish parish. At the time, McCarthy said, the city only had a few other parishes. 

The now-shuttered St. James Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy Katie Rosendale)
The now-shuttered St. James Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy Katie Rosendale)

The cornerstone of St. James Church was laid in July of 1870, according to a 125-year anniversary directory published by the church in 1995. Two years later, construction was complete, and St. James held its first Mass.

“When the church was built, (Stephen and Jane O’Brien) were apparently pious enough to be able to donate a window,” said McCarthy. This stained glass window –– one of 18 presented by members of the congregation –– depicts St. Stephen the martyr, whom O’Brien likely considered his patron saint. The window is vibrant in color, the saint’s rich red garment set against rolling green hills in the background. In his hands, St. Stephen holds several stones –– a reference to his gruesome death –– and a palm frond, which indicates martyrdom. Beneath the illustration, a panel reads, “In Memory of Stephen and Jane O’Brien.”

McCarthy theorized that his ancestors saw it as a duty, an honor and a privilege to donate the window. 

“I would have thought that they had strong Catholic roots coming from Ireland, and they believed very much in what the church was doing at the time,” he said.

McCarthy himself did not attend St. James Church, but his ancestors’ contribution ties him to the building’s fate. 

“(The O’Briens’ window) is part of the history of Grand Rapids,” he said. “And it has some personal meaning to me.”


St. James Church played a huge role in the lives of others, like Szubinski. He began attending the church decades ago, when he started having children.

His daughter, Kathy Swain, grew up at St. James, where she attended first through eighth grade.

 “I made my first communion there, reconciliation, confirmation,” she said. 

She got married there, too.

“I have a lot of fond memories,” Swain said. 

One such memory that stands out is the school’s monthly hot dog lunches, a special treat for students at the school attached to St. James. 

“We had a chip for a quarter and a donut for a quarter and a hot dog for a quarter. You could smell it,” she said. “Those were the best.” 

Swain, who has spent the past 38 years teaching in Catholic schools, said that her time at St. James helped her become the person she is today. 

By 2022, Swain had moved away and no longer attended St. James regularly, but the church still held a special place in her heart. Unaware of the property’s deterioration, she learned that St. James would be holding its final Mass less than one week in advance.

“I’m like, ‘What?’” Swain recalled. “It was really sad to hear. (The church) is a big piece of you: It’s family. It’s community.” 

When the church shut down, she said it was “almost like a death in the family.” 

“I just wish we would have had more notice,” she said.

Swain believes that if they had been better informed, many people affiliated with the church would have rallied to raise money. 

“There’s so much blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors (in St. James),” she said. “Even though (some people) might not be going (to St. James) now, they would’ve donated and helped out.”


Today, the former church sits vacant and unused. The sign out front, which once read “St. James Catholic Church” in bold black letters, must have shed its E at some point: Now, it reads “St. Jamms Catholic Church,” the second M scrawled in bright white chalk.

The sign outside the now-shuttered St. James Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy Katie Rosendale)
The sign outside the now-shuttered St. James Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy Katie Rosendale)

Nearby, a second sign declares that the property is for sale by NAI Wisinski of West Michigan. At this once-vibrant site, the only signs of life are the occasional passerby and the man fast asleep by a side entrance. 

“I don’t like seeing it sitting there empty and not being used,” McCarthy said.

Many things can happen to a former church, according to Mark Elsdon, a pastor, author and nonprofit executive. Elsdon is the editor of an upcoming book, “Gone for Good? Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition,” on the topic. 

“Sometimes, (former churches) literally just sit there and fall apart,” Elsdon said. “That’s common where the property is harder to develop or less valuable.” 

High-end housing or some kind of private development is another common outcome. 

The St. James property is currently pending sale. In an email in early April, Mary Anne Wisinski-Rosely, a partner at NAI Wisinski of West Michigan, confirmed that there is a buyer. The property is in the due diligence phase of the purchase agreement.

Elizabeth Zeller, a planner for the city of Grand Rapids, said that the property is zoned for “all residential development types” (within a certain unit count). In short, residential developments can proceed freely, while other projects might require approval from the city. 

“The Planning Department has not had any meetings to date to discuss a potential project at this property,” Zeller wrote in an Apr. 24 email.

In theory, the church itself could be demolished. “In general, unless a building is protected by a historic district or designation, the City does not have the authority to prevent demolition of existing structures (when a property has an approved redevelopment plan),” Zeller wrote. 

The property’s current owner is free to negotiate certain terms of use during the sale. 

Though Wisinski-Rosely does not represent the buyer and has limited information, she believes the buyer intends to keep the building standing. 

The Diocese of Grand Rapids, meanwhile, has not released any information to the public. Hutchinson, the parish’s pastor-rector, declined to comment, citing the emotional toll of the past year. The diocese’s director of communications did not respond to requests for an interview.

“The diocese has not been very forthcoming about any planning for the building. All we know is that it’s for sale,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know if the diocese has certain stipulations in terms of the use.”

When McCarthy and a friend tried to make inquiries, their efforts were largely unfruitful. 

“I’ve had trouble even getting people to respond to emails,” McCarthy said.

Szubinski and Swain, too, have not felt fully informed. 

“We’d like (church leaders) to be a little more transparent, especially because of all the people and their families –– all the people that donated money (to the church),” Swain said. “I feel like the community should have a say in it, because where did they get all that money from? From the parishioners.” 

The shuttered St. James Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy Katie Rosendale)
The shuttered St. James Catholic Church in Grand Rapids. (Courtesy Katie Rosendale)

In the absence of concrete information, McCarthy finds himself worrying about his ancestors’ window. 

“Sometimes my imagination takes over, and it just seems to me like that window might get desecrated at some point,” he said. “And that bothers me. The people that donated (the window) certainly never intended that it would be desecrated.”

When St. James held its final Mass, WOOD TV8 reported that the stained glass would be preserved –– but here, too, the details are murky. 

“What does that mean?” McCarthy asked. “They actually could disassemble (the stained glass) and say that that’s being preserved and put it in a basement someplace.”

While McCarthy’s main concern is the window, he would ideally like to see a developer “preserve (the church) exactly the way it is and use it in some respectful way.” 

For him, a brew pub could fit the bill.

Meanwhile, Swain and Szubinski hope the building remains true to its original intent. “Years and years of working together” –– a great deal of time, money and effort –– went into building and maintaining St. James, Swain said. She believes turning the building into a brewery would not honor these individuals’ desires.

“There’s a time and a place for bars, but a church should be a church,” Swain said. “That’s consecrated land. That’s been blessed.” 

“We (a group of parish stakeholders) thought the appropriate thing would be to use it as a historic church, but to use it for weddings or funerals or things like that,” Szubinski said. 

But church leaders, he said, were not in favor of this option. 

Alternatively, Szubinski would like to see another denomination use the space.

“People need to go back to the basic roots of being back to God. We’ve lost that. We’re drifting away,” Szubinski said. “The whole church concept has kind of dissipated.” 

According to Elsdon, former churches can retain a sense of mission, even if the buildings no longer serve as churches. “The basic premise of my work is that these are originally socially-oriented properties: churches that hopefully had some sense of purpose in their original founding,” he said. 

When church property becomes privatized, it can contribute to wealth inequality. This doesn’t have to be the case, according to Elsdon.

“What we’re trying to do is encourage churches and denominations to think about the way they sell and the way they repurpose,” Elsdon said. “Can it be done as a way to promote the good of their neighborhood?”

He suggested selling the land to an affordable housing developer and giving it to a community land trust as two promising options.

In this wave of church property transitions, what churches choose to do with their spaces matters deeply, according to Elsdon. 

“It’s sort of a one-time thing,” he said. “When these things are sold, they’re not going to become a church again, at least not in any series of lifetimes that we can envision. So the decision is pretty important.”