Welsh voices call to convert dying chapels

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The Cymmer, the oldest chapel in the Rhondda, was once packed to its polished wooden rafters with a congregation who regularly risked being deafened by a tub-thumping preacher. A century on, empty and long deserted by regular worshippers, and now threatened by a new road, the building is poised to be dismantled and rebuilt a mile down the road as a heritage park memorial to the glory of what it once was.

A few miles away in Cardiff, another old Presbyterian chapel is now a mosque, attracting packed congregations. "It is a magnificent building," said the Imam, Sheikh Said Ismail, "and it has not been changed at all apart from the installation of the carpet which we need for our religion, and the sign outside. We have very large congregations attending this mosque."

In Pontypridd a chapel has become a GP's surgery. Near Swansea, a once- proud Zoar Chapel has been turned into an agricultural store, carrying the name Zoar's Ark. In Aberaeron, an ex-chapel is a carpet warehouse. There is a chapel converted into a gift shop near St David's; into an antique shop in Haverfordwest; and into a block of flats for elderly people in Swansea.

One Rhondda chapel has been exported stone by stone to Japan where it now graces a fairway on one of the principal golf courses. Redundant chapels have become indoor markets, DIY paint stores and museums.

All across Wales, the litany of change is continuing: closure, conversion, demolition for the chapels that were once as much cornerstones of Welsh culture as the coal mines and male voice choirs.

A rural depopulation, the demise of the coal and steel industries, a drop in the use of the Welsh language three decades ago, and the arrival of television in the 1950s, are among the factors that have been blamed for the decline. Chapel attendances have declined dramatically since the 1950s, and only 11 per cent of people in Wales now claim membership of a chapel or church.

There are thought to be 7,000 chapel sites in Wales with around 5,000 buildings remaining, although not all are used for religious purposes. In more recent times the cost of maintaining the stone-built chapels has soared at a time when congregations have declined.

Many of the chapels were built in the South Wales valleys during the industrial revolution. Some were built big to attract the migrant labour that was flooding into iron towns like Merthyr Tydfil and Ebbw Vale, and could hold up to 800 worshippers at one sitting.

Neil Sumner, secretary of the south-east Wales branch of Capel, the Chapel Heritage Society, said: "We accept that there are just not enough people out there to use the existing chapels; there probably always were too many. We accept that if some buildings are going to survive they will need to be converted into something else. The Cymmer chapel suffered declining congregations and closed and now plans have been submitted for it to be moved to a heritage site."

Brian Davies, curator of the Pontypridd historical and cultural centre, said: "In south-east Wales there has been a higher rate of decline in the Welsh language chapels because of the language. There has been a decline generally - in my own village of Penrhiwceibr there are only two out of seven. The rate of closure has been very considerable indeed."

CADW, the organisation that looks after listed buildings in Wales, has been in talks with some of the church and chapel groups about funding repairs and renovation. About 400 Welsh chapels are listed, most of them Grade II.

"Because of the nature of non-conformist chapels where separate congregations are often responsible, there is no one overall body which cares for them," said CADW's Vaughan Johnson. "We have been trying to encourage chapel authorities to look at the problem and whether a redundant chapels' trust could be created in Wales, which would take on board the job of identifying the best examples of chapels that have fallen into disuse and come up with a scheme of conservation and renovation.

"There is agreement that something needs to be done."

A week tomorrow Dafydd Owen, general secretary of the Presbyterian church in Wales, will outline to the General Assembly a new proposal where the church would look at setting up a property development arm to spearhead the conversion of empty chapels into homes for rent.

He said: "Virtually all communities in Wales have two, three or four chapels belonging to various denominations. In the village where I was brought up there were four Presbyterian chapels alone.

"Should we be able to persuade the different denominations to work together and use one chapel building, then there would be within each community in Wales two or three redundant churches or chapels which could be converted to homes or the land used for new housing.

"We have always had too many church and chapel buildings in Wales. That is based historically on the competition and rivalry between denominations, but that is now in the past and we want to be more positive in the future."

The church has already got its own housing association but that is limited in development potential.

Mr Owen said: "I will suggest that we should look at establishing an independent property development department within the church which will be able to develop sites and find its own capital resources."

Such a project, creating homes for rent could solve a second problem that has been festering in Wales - depopulation.

"We would be creating accommodation for rent that local people could afford. There are young families who would like to remain in their community but are unable to afford house prices which have been driven up by second homes. In many cases, they have to leave and look elsewhere," Mr Owen said.