Bowling alleys in churches are disappearing
, the USA Today headline notes -- but how did they get there in the first place?
"Imagine what the average pastor of fifty years ago would have thought of a proposition to put a bowling alley in the basement of his church! But now we find not only the bowling alley, but billiard and pool tables ..."
-- an editorial from 1913 (but sounding very much as though it could have been a description of some of the amenities
at a modern megachurch
) quoted from a Rochester, N.Y. newspaper by The Friend
, a weekly Quaker magazine.
Despite The Friend
's handwringing about these trappings of the "institutional church," by 1913 the mingling of bowling and worship no longer seemed terribly novel. An 1893 issue of The Review of the Churches
(Britain's first ecumenical journal) had asked its readers "Would it not be a thousand times better to have a bowling-alley in the cellar of a church where the boys could go and play?" The Pacific
, representing the Congregational Churches of the Pacific Coast, went further in 1915 and stated simply "There is no reason why the billiard-table and the bowling alley should not form a part of church equipment."
From there it was not very long before bowling alleys were discussed by church planning books such as this one
, or featured in magazine ads
in magazines like Church Management
The bowling alleys (and billiard tables, and the other amusements) were by and large an effort to create an institution that ministered to more than just the spiritual needs of its attendees, but also to their social and recreational needs -- all to better its efforts to (in the memorable words of The Review of Churches
) "fight rum and ignorance as it should."
Ignorance perhaps, but rum may have been a lost cause. At least one alley
was built in an attempt to skirt local liquor laws, and another church petitioned for looser state liquor laws
to allow it to sell liquor at its own bowling alley.
It's estimated that there are fewer than 200 church bowling alleys left in the United States; here are a few of them, as described by newspaper articles, blog entries, videos, or the venue's own website (stars indicate ones that are particularly interesting).
- St. Francis, St. Paul, MN [ venue ]
- St. John's Lutheran Church, Chicago, IL [ venue | article* | video ]
- Trinity Lutheran, New Haven, CT [ venue ]
- St. Ann Catholic, Peoria, IL [ article | blog | venue ]
- Corpus Christi Church, Buffalo, NY [ blog* | video* | video* ]
- St. John the Baptist, Kansas City [ article* | video | article* ]
- St. Mark's, Burlington, VT [ article ]
- Immaculate Conception, Chicago, IL [ Facebook page ]
- Epiphany of Our Lord, St. Louis, MO [ article ]
- Immaculate Conception, Omaha, NE (The Bowlatorium) [ venue ]
- Most Precious Blood, Fort Wayne, IN [ article ]
- First Presbyterian, Jamaica, Queens [ blog ]
- St. Monica, Philadelphia, PA [ venue ]
- All Saints, Haverhill, MA [ video ]
- Good Shepherd, Scranton, PA [ article | video ]
As bowling declined as an American pastime, so
-- but this decline in the pastime made possible the rise of the bowling alley church
. Whether as an occasional novelty
for the congregation, or a semi-permanent Sunday rental
, or purchased
as a new home (either with
bowling), these underutilized or unused
bowling facilities found second lives as houses of worship.
But, strangely, there's nothing all that new about that
trend, either -- from 1861:
"... it was an American bowling alley; people used to congregate there, and scenes of the vilest debauchery were going on ... we have prevented the Bowling Alley from being used for a bad purpose, but turning it to the best of all, viz., the worship of Almighty God and the education of youth."