Chapels seek fresh role as pews empty: Presbyterians' plan would convert buildings to make 6,000 homes in Welsh valleys

HUNDREDS of Welsh chapels could soon be demolished or converted for housing because of falling congregations.

The chapels once stood with the pit heads as the distinguishing features of the Welsh valleys landscape. Now one has gone and the other is diminishing.

Up to a third of almost 1,000 chapels could be affected by a scheme being considered by the Welsh Presbyterian Church which could create up to 6,000 new houses or flats over the next 10 years.

The Church has raised pounds 1m in development funding from Tai Cymru (the Welsh regulatory funding body for housing associations) and its own housing association, Aelwyd, run jointly with the Baptist and United Reformed Church. Homes would be allocated on the basis of need, not religion.

The Presbyterians say congregations fell 4 per cent last year to 56,000 and maintenance costs are rising.

'We believe it would be wrong for us to be continually appealing for money to maintain buildings which are not required,' said the Rev Dafydd Owen, the Presbyterians' general secretary.

'It is far better if we can convert the land into homes to help the homeless, the elderly, young families and those with special needs.'

He admitted, however, that there had been 'misunderstandings and downright opposition from chapelgoers'.

In Ffestiniog, North Wales, the Calvinistic Methodist chapel is earmarked for housing development. Feelings over its fate were split between those who attended the chapel and those who did not.

Worshippers were in favour of redevelopment. 'The chapel was built for 800, and our congregation is about 25,' said Richard Hefin Williams, one of its five deacons.

'We hold services in the vestry and the only time we use the chapel is for funerals and weddings. It's a waste of a great building.'

Gweneira Jones, who lives in Ffestiniog, disagreed: 'I haven't been to the chapel since I left Sunday school years ago. But it would be a great shame to lose the building - it's lovely, just like a mansion.'

A decision will be taken next week at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Lampeter, Dyfed.

(Photograph omitted)