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Churches across Europe repurposed for nightclubs and hotels as attendance shrinks to stunning lows

Churches across Europe are being abandoned or converted into entertainment venues as Christianity continues to decline on the continent.

“That is painful. I will not hide it. On the other hand, there is no return to the past possible,” Monsignor Johan Bonny, the Bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, told The Associated Press.

The bishop’s comments come as churches across Belgium and Europe sit increasingly abandoned, a symptom of the decline in Christianity on the continent that once helped spread the religion to every region of the world.

Some of the churches have been converted into venues such as clothing shops, nightclubs and hotels. In Mechelen, Belgium, the Sacred Heart Church has closed down for two years as the building is converted into a cafe and concert venue investors believe will turn the Church into “a new cultural hot spot in the heart of Mechelen.”

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Abandoned European church interior

Sunlight filters in through stained-glass windows in a guest room at the Martins Patershof hotel in the center of Mechelen, Belgium, Monday, June 19, 2023. Across Europe, the continent that nurtured Christianity for most of two millennia, many churches, convents, beguinages and chapels stand empty as faith and church attendance have dwindled over the past half century. Many are now been repurposed to preserve their historical and architectural relevance, while others have opened up to non-religious activities to expand their use.  (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The repurposing of some of Belgium’s greatest churches and cathedrals comes after a 2018 Pew Research study showed that while 83% of Belgians say they were raised Christian, only 55% still follow the religion. Meanwhile, only 10% of Belgians say they attend church services regularly.

The trend is not unique to Belgium, with churches from Italy and Germany being repurposed for similar purposes. 

However, the trend is most pronounced in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern region of Belgium, where towns once had an average of six churches. Now local leaders say some of the buildings have become eye soars and a drain on municipal finances, leading to the movement to convert the building’s into new businesses.

“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,” Mechelen Mayor Bart Somers, who is leading the charge to repurpose about 350 churches across Flanders, told The Associated Press. “So we have a lot of new destinations for the churches.”

Abandoned European church interior

Tables and an art installation are set up at the Sacred Heart church in Mechelen, Beligum, Monday, June 19, 2023. Across Europe, the continent that nurtured Christianity for most of two millennia, many churches, convents, beguinages and chapels stand empty as faith and church attendance have dwindled over the past half century. Many are now been repurposed to preserve their historical and architectural relevance, while others have opened up to non-religious activities to expand their use. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

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One such project in Mechelen was the Martin’s Patershof hotel, which was made by gutting the inside of a church to create rooms that featured beds with headboards that resembled organ pipes and a breakfast room next to the former alter.

“We often hear that people come here to relax and enjoy the silence of its former identity,” hotel manager Emilie De Preter told The Associated Press.

“In the hotel, people sleep in a church, maybe have sex in a 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,” Somers continued. “I am more concerned about the actual architectural value.”

Meanwhile, St. Anthony of Padua church in Brussels was converted into Maniak Padoue climbing club, where much of the old remains of the church are still displayed.

A climber scales a wall in the repurposed Saint-Antoine church in Brussels on Wednesday, June 21, 2023. Across Europe, the continent that nurtured Christianity for most of two millennia, many churches, convents, beguinages and chapels stand empty as faith and church attendance have dwindled over the past half century. Many are now been repurposed to preserve their historical and architectural relevance, while others have opened up to non-religious activities to expand their use. (AP Photo/Sylvain Plazy)

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

Also in Brussels, a former Anglican church was converted into the Spirito nightclub and features a priest kissing a nun as a logo.

However, not everyone is thrilled with how old churches are being treated.

“Those are places for contemplation,” Bonny said. “And is that not exactly that the care of the church should be about?”

Abandoned European church interior

Confessional booths are stacked into a corner at the Sacred Heart church in Mechelen, Beligum, Monday, June 19, 2023. Across Europe, the continent that nurtured Christianity for most of two millennia, many churches, convents, beguinages and chapels stand empty as faith and church attendance have dwindled over the past half century. Many are now been repurposed to preserve their historical and architectural relevance, while others have opened up to non-religious activities to expand their use. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

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However, Bonny also believes that the moment is temporary, pointing toward the long arc of history and arguing that a potential rebirth of the faith in Europe could still happen.

“Every 300 years we nearly had to start again,” Bonny said. “Something new, I’m sure, will happen. But it takes time.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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