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Clever ideas bring churches back to life

They may not be the most obvious choice for a new home or business, but about 20 churches a year are being turned into hotels, restaurants, houses - and even a gym.

There are about 90,000 édifices religieux in France, according to the Observatoire du Patri­moine Religieux, and about 500 are at risk.

Many are for sale after years of low maintenance have left them needing costly repairs and upgrades.

They are often in key sites, have lots of space, inside and out, and beautiful features, and are available at a wide range of prices.

One in Nantes caught the eye of businessman Benoît Boiteau who, after years in drinks distribution, was looking for a new career and recognised that a 630m2 church near both railway and tramway could be turned into something special.

Now the old Chapelle de la Petite Sagesse has been turned into the four-star Sōzō Hotel, with 23 rooms and a suite, all built on different levels and each having a close-up view of the church’s interior features under the 17m high roof.

It is not alone. An old church in Angers is now a nightclub, one in Tavey, Franche-Comté, is a family home, another is a restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, one in Sarlat, Dordogne, is an indoor market, and the one in Courrières, Pas-de-Calais, has become a police station.

The majority of churches are owned by the mairie but are often much-loved buildings where the religious community will have a say in their future use. That is why a church in Tourcoing, Nord, was sold for €20,000 and turned into a community cultural centre and not the proposed chip shop.

Churches are also selling off buildings as they become uneconomical - and especially expensive to heat. Eglise Saint-Jules in Longwy, near Nancy, is for sale at €190,000 as its renovation would cost hundreds of thousands and annual heating bills for the 150m2 of space can hit €30,000.

Tight finances in communes often mean unused religious buildings can quickly fall into disrepair and the Confér­ence des Evêques de France organised a nuit des églises to highlight the situation and push for crowdfunding to be used to keep such local features alive, rather than demolished.

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