Religious culture changes in Broome County

By Conor Mooney

May 26, 2013 Updated May 27, 2013 at 4:22 PM EDT

(WBNG Binghamton) Sunday is a day of worship for Catholics and Protestants. But these Sundays, not as many people are heading to church compared to 50 years ago.

As a result, the condition of their houses are worship are suffering.

It's part of a cultural shift, experts say. Religion in America is changing, and Broome County is no exception.

"In the past 10 years, there's been huge changes in the types of churches, the structures of churches, and the number of churches in our area," said Gerald Smith, Broome County historian.

During the 1950's, Broome County was home to more than 200 religious sites, a number that has changed in recent years.

"Some churches are closed off completely and are used for something else, maybe for office space or dance studios or something else," said Ron Borgna, of the Preservation Association of the Southern Tier.

Broome County has lost more than 21,000 residents since its population peaked at nearly 222,000 in the 1970's.

Borgna attributed the decline of churches to fewer members of clergy and people attending services.

"Sunday is no longer necessarily the day you go to church. It's the day you do grocery shopping, or play a round of golf or do work around the house," said Smith.

According to Smith, as traditional churches are struggling, congregations at non-traditional churches -- like Evangelist -- are increasing.

Though it's clear religion is transitioning, experts say it's hard to predict where this phase will end.

"Hopefully, that's just the ebb and flow of the system, and then maybe, people will start coming back to the churches," Borgna said.

The shift has had an impact on church architecture.

Marble from Florence, stained glass, and Gothic architecture are all features found in local traditional churches.

Many wonder whether sacred architecture will be saved if the building is forced to close, those some don't know.

"It's something we don't talk about," said Kathleen Reynolds, of St. Patrick's Church. "Those aren't positive thoughts."

Added Smith: "That's sort of gone by the wayside, and I hate to say it, but you can now sort of buy cookie cutter churches where you can order mail order things from a catalog."

To help restore interest in churches and their architecture, the preservation association of the Southern Tier will focus their efforts on 15 sacred sites during an open house weekend.

"I think if people got inside of them, they'd see what a beautiful place it is to spend your time in and attend a service," said Borgna.

Though the future remains uncertain for buildings that have played an important part in local history, the passion to preserve them is growing.

"One of the architects told me locally, it's hard to imagine how you can reuse all these old churches," said Smith. "They're hard to heat, utility costs are high, insurance costs are high. But they're magnificent structures that we want to see saved and reused."