Case Study - Churches

Belgian authorities appear to be willing to address difficult situations that arise in a number of areas, including economic challenges, with solutions that include the enforcement of Regulations. However, there appears to be little interest in tackling the growing disaffection with religious matters, or the conservation problems that are created by this distancing from religious practice. It is as if this particular set of issues is deemed ‘unmentionable’.

The spiritual ‘crisis’ that Western Europe has faced for about 40 years has resulted in a growing drop in Christian religious observance. This has provoked an alienation of religious sites, mainly those associated with the Catholic Church. In Belgium, according to statistics, Sunday religious observances were followed by 36% of the population in 1967; by 1990 this figure was only 18%. In Brussels, regular Sunday practice decreased from 12% to 8.8% between 1980 and 1990.

In 1998 the Town of Charleroi commissioned an analysis from the architect Paul Petit. This study showed that the town of 200,000 inhabitants (more precisely, 20 residents to the hectare) encompasses 71 churches and chapels. Of these, 51 are under municipal management and cater for a total of 7000 regular churchgoers. In order to carry out essential maintenance work on these churches, a budget of around 300 million francs (Belgian) should be allocated in the next 10 years. This is double the annual budget currently provided for the town’s local-council buildings.

A Threatened Heritage

Religious buildings, sometimes more than 1000 years old, often form the core of a district, of a village, or a town - and they are landmarks for both believers and non-believers. In many cases, such landmarks are an important feature of the region’s historical and archaeological heritage and play an essential role in local tourist growth. Many of these religious structures have survived revolutions and numerous wars, but today are at risk of a slow death due to negligence and abandonment.

In Belgium, the clergy has responsibility for religious affairs, while the church council manages the more worldly or mundane aspects and assets. The number and complexity of legal and financial issues - for which the clergy and the church often share jurisdiction - increase the difficulty of managing church property.

Since 1801, the Concordat has enforced the ‘obligation of complementarity’ onto the ‘communes’, and hence to all citizens. That is to say, the general community has responsibility for the cost of maintenance, restoration and construction of a church if the church council’s resources are insufficient.

In addition, classified edifices can receive regional subsidies, which are generally allocated to buildings that are open to the public. This represents from 60-95% of the buildings in the Walloon region (depending on the significance of the structure), 40% in the region of Brussels and 90% in the Flemish region.

The jewels of our heritage, such as Tournai Cathedral - included on the UNESCO World Heritage List - or Brussels Cathedral, which hosts important national events such as royal weddings or the annual Te Deum, need dramatic sums to ensure their maintenance and restoration. There is no debate about their quality and symbolic value, or the financial aid that must be provided. Yet, how many unoccupied and abandoned churches stand in close proximity to these exceptional buildings?

In these times of staff cuts, and restrictions in education spending, religious authorities are aware of the need to deal with this situation and of the difficulty of today using 200 year old legislation to encourage society to maintain public religious buildings.

The opinion voiced by the Vatican has not served to advance the debate. The newspaper Le Monde, quoting a papal document dated December 1987, reported that ‘churches cannot be considered as public places’ and that, apart from religious practice, ‘they can only welcome concerts of sacred and religious music’. Happily, the religious authorities in Belgium have a more open attitude. Various examples can be found of public use of church buildings.

Nevertheless, the progressive abandonment of church buildings and the search for a new use is a general problem in Western Europe.

An Essential Selection

While we are establishing thematic inventories for other heritage categories (for example, local-council buildings or water towers) do we not need to be equally concerned with the category that contains religious buildings, classified or not? Indeed, they have been among the first building type to be registered on the list of classified properties. Moreover, there are many churches: this building type is widely represented. A review of existing lists may well provide a more comprehensive view and allow the development of a plan for future management. Management needs to range from maintenance and conservation of the initial function, to adaptive re-use.


As for all other building types, the survival of churches depends on an intelligent adaptation that respects the existing structure and area.

Transformation into multi-residential complexes, or even hotels, cannot be considered a satisfactory solution because they alter the spatial structure in a non-reversible way. Only the façades are preserved - we could describe these operations as ‘façadism’- not so much destruction, but negation of the interior area and ‘re-creation’ of interior features to a totally new plan.

There are a few examples in Belgium of adaptation of churches for social use: the exhibition room of Boendael’s chapel in Brussels, the concert hall or the auditorium of the Brigittines’ chapel also in Brussels, or the meeting rooms at the Vertbois in Liege - but even ‘classical’ uses have their limits.

In accordance with its program to find new uses for heritage buildings, the Walloon Heritage Institute aims to adapt two churches located in Tournai: the church of La Madeleine into a printing museum, and the church of Saint-Marguerite into a concert hall. At the same time, proposals to adapt Sacré-Cœur Church in Bruges to be used as an ‘events’ and function venue have met with considerable controversy.

Mainly public, these new uses provide the community with an opportunity to enjoy those places that they have helped maintain. And we certainly support such proposals. The most difficult issue, and an essential role of the project architect, is to ensure that the heritage value and spirit of the place is respected and conserved.

In order to diversify the options for public or semi-public use, it may be possible to use church buildings for family occasions (such as birthday or weddings celebrations) or similar functions that have no commercial gain or purpose. Cultural organisations and similar bodies are often looking for meeting places. Old churches could provide an area favourable for both intellectual and spiritual inspiration, in an environment suitable for group activities.

Furnishings & Moveable Objects

Many movable heritage items - including statues, paintings, altarpieces and candlesticks - have a specific relationship with a church, as do more fixed furnishings: the altar, confessional, font, or an organ. These should ideally be kept in situ, to respect the integrity and special meaning of the place, and also to maintain the heritage significance associated with a particular structure. Most of the problems associated with protecting the heritage value of the building are equally applicable to movable heritage objects and more permanent furnishing and fixtures. However, sometimes solutions for immovable heritage can also offer conservation opportunities for movable items and objects.

If a building is occupied it is maintained and kept under surveillance. Therefore, is it not viable to maintain in situ at least a part of the significant objects and furnishings that are integral to that place, even if the church building is no longer used for religious purposes? With appropriate agreement between the occupant and the owner of the building, it may be possible to retain some or all of the objects and fixtures that are integrally related to the history and character of the building. In some circumstances, it may even be feasible to make the building and its contents accessible to the public. This has the benefit of maintaining the original context, and thereby retaining the heritage significance of both the building and its furnishings. In addition, this would have the advantage of avoiding the dilemma of finding alternative display or storage venues, and of relieving a potential load on museum facilities.

Council of Europe Recommendations

In 1989 the Council of Europe published a report on disused religious buildings. The study of the European situation, encompassing both Eastern and Western Europe, and the more detailed examination of the status in Italy, clearly defined the main issues and produced sound recommendations - even if there has been a lack of subsequent follow-up and directed action.

The May 1989 Assembly, acknowledging the risk faced by disused religious buildings and in consciousness of their growing number, proposed more particularly in Resolution No. 916:

    (iv) to avoid the conservation of religious buildings which are in ruins, except for the case where the building presents an exceptional architectural, historical or commemorative interest;

    (v) to foster re-use and re-adaptation projects that are not incompatible with the initial use of the building and that do not alter in a non-reversible way the original structure;

    (vii) to develop a more imaginative use of existing religious buildings.

Safeguarding the Meaning of a Place

Even if philosophies may vary, it is commonly accepted that religious heritage is inseparable from the history and the art history of our society. Consequently, can we let religious heritage slowly deteriorate for lack of adopting a timely and responsible attitude, and for lack of willingness to confront a sensitive topic? It is only by understanding and adopting the synthesis between the spiritual, economic and heritage dimensions of religious buildings that we will be able to find adaptive social and economic solutions that remain meaningful and go beyond commercial interests.

ICOMOS Belgium