In Belgium, Empty Churches Are Being Turned into Businesses 

16 July 2023

Across Europe, churches and other Christian religious buildings stand increasingly empty.

These empty churches are being repurposed. That means they are being changed into other things like hotels, sport climbing businesses, and even dance places.

Supporters say the changes remove the need for costly repairs and care of the buildings. But critics say such changes raise ethical concerns.

The exterior of the Martin's Patershof hotel in the center of Mechelen, Belgium, Monday, June 19, 2023. Across Europe, churches have opened up to non-religious activities to expand their use. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
The exterior of the Martin's Patershof hotel in the center of Mechelen, Belgium, Monday, June 19, 2023. Across Europe, churches have opened up to non-religious activities to expand their use. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Empty churches

Empty churches can be seen over much of Europe - from Germany to Italy and many nations in between.

But the empty churches really stand out in Flanders, in the northern part of Belgium. The area has some of the greatest cathedrals in Europe.

Yet there are not enough people attending the churches. In 2018, the PEW research group released an opinion study of religion in Belgium. The study found that 83 percent of people said they had been raised as Christians. But only 55 percent still consider themselves to be Christians. And only 10 percent of Belgians still attend church regularly.

Johan Bonny is the bishop of Antwerp. He is a top Church leader in the city. He told the Associated Press about the issue: "That is painful. I will not hide it. On the other hand, there is no return to the past possible."

Mechelen is a town of 85,000 people just north of Brussels. It is the Roman Catholic center of Belgium. It has more than 20 churches. Mayor Bart Somers has been working for years to give many of the buildings a different purpose.

"In my city, we have a brewery in a church, we have a hotel in a church, we have a cultural center in a church, we have a library in a church. So, we have a lot of new destinations for the churches," said Somers.

Somers, a Flemish regional minister, is also involved in repurposing about 350 churches spread across the densely populated area of 6.7 million people.

Hotel and rock climbing gym

A famous repurposing project in Belgium was Martin's Patershof hotel in Mechelen. The inside of the church was cleaned out to create rooms. "We often hear that people come here to relax and enjoy the silence of its former identity," said hotel manager Emilie De Preter.

With its simple luxury, it offers time for thought, and more. Since it is now a hotel, people might do many things in the former church.

"So, you could say: ethically, is it a good idea to have a hotel in a church? I don't have so many hesitations," said Somers. "I am more concerned about the actual architectural value."

The design value is especially clear at St. Anthony of Padua church in Brussels. These days, it is also known as Maniak Padoue climbing club. The rock climbing wall is located near large, special colored windows known as stained-glass windows.

"The stained glass brings a...warm light to the venue when the sun goes through it, so we can really feel the presence of the remains of the church," said Kyril Wittouck, the co-founder of the club. "The altar is still in place, so we are surrounded by remains and it reminds us where we actually are."

Also in Brussels, the Spirito night club has taken over a former Anglican church and has an image of a priest kissing a nun as its logo.

It is not exactly what Bishop Bonny had in mind.

Even if the Roman Catholic religion is declining, a sense of the sacred and a need for thought still exists in society, whether one is religious or not. The sense of peace coming from a church is hard to match. So, for Bonny, there is no reason to turn churches into supermarkets or dance places.

History and future

Bonny thinks the most successful repurposing has been the handing over of churches to other Christian groups, such as Coptic or Eastern European churches.

At his office, though, he can get tired just looking at the number of people coming to make deals for empty Roman Catholic buildings. His heart is heavy when a real estate agent shows up. "They see possibilities. And you cannot believe, suddenly, how pious they can become when a financial opportunity presents itself. Suddenly they are more devout than a nun," he said.

Knowing the history of Christianity over hundreds of years, Bonny considers the effects of time since the near future does not look bright. "Every 300 years we nearly had to start again," he said. "Something new, I'm sure, will happen. But it takes time."

At the hotel Martin's Patershof, there is even a condition that the church can reclaim the building if it is needed again, said De Preter. The hotel elements were built on steel beams and could be taken out. "If the church, at a certain point, wants the building back — which holds a very small chance, probably — it is possible," De Preter said.

I'm Ashley Thompson.

And I'm John Russell.

Raf Casert reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

cathedral – n. the main church of an area

brewery—n. a place where beer is made

destination –n. a place that a person goes to or is sent to

relax – v. to spend time resting or doing something enjoyable

luxury –n. something that is very costly and attractive but not necessary

hesitation n. to stop briefly before you do something especially because you are nervous or unsure about what to do

architectural – adj. relating to the art or science of designing and creating buildings

venue – n. the place where an event takes place

altar – n. an area used as a center of worship in Christian ceremonies