A striking amount of gutter talk from this bunch of holy rollers.
May 10, 2012 1:37 AM   Subscribe

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 too did the church bowling alley -- 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 or without 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."
posted by orthicon halo (37 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
It's kind of reasonable, the relation between bowling and Christianity, when you think about it. The underlying premise is rooted in the Holy Trinity, which is symbolized within bowling by the three holes in every bowling ball. From that core beginning, the dark orb of consciousness, that dark bowling ball, an existence begins. Let there be light! It is written this way in the Holy Scripture, and represented in modern bowling parlors, wherever Lazer Bowling is popular. The bowling ball is the Spirit, and the journey of the Spirit begins when the ball is released from the hand. There are two directions the Spirit can travel. There are two lanes in a bowling alley. The two directions the Spirit can travel are toward Good or toward Evil. This is not the same as in bowling. I think you're losing the metaphor. In bowling, both of the lanes are Evil. But there are two directions you can spin the bowling ball, either inward or outward, leading either to one side or the other. And if you don't spin it right, the ball will fall into Evil. In bowling, as in Christianity, the willingness to choose the right path leads to the best results. And choosing the right path sometimes means we must go against our baser instincts. All of us are born with Original Spin, and our path to glory, or a strike or a spare, requires that we overcome it.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:08 AM on May 10, 2012 [15 favorites]

I have no idea how these people got their bowling alleys wedged into their churches, or why.
posted by radwolf76 at 2:11 AM on May 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

There are blowing alleys in churches?
posted by pracowity at 2:26 AM on May 10, 2012

posted by pracowity at 2:26 AM on May 10, 2012

though maybe...
posted by pracowity at 2:27 AM on May 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

Favorited just for the title. Incorrect spelling of favourited in honour of this most American of subjects; can't ever imagine a church here being used for anything other than, well, church, with optional half hour milling aroumd uncomfortably with people you only see on Sunday, drinking bad coffee and eating stale cake.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:36 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

The numbers of bowling alleys in churches are way down, the number of same sex civil unions are way up. It's in REVELATIONS, people!
posted by codswallop at 3:13 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Jesus died for your pins!
posted by chillmost at 3:20 AM on May 10, 2012 [9 favorites]

posted by twoleftfeet at 3:24 AM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Dude abides.
posted by loquacious at 3:25 AM on May 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Bowling definitely involves the tetractys, so it's probably really some kind of Pythagorean cult thing: "O holy, holy Tetractys, thou that containest the root and source of the eternally flowing creation! For the divine number begins with the profound, pure unity until it comes to the holy four; then it begets the mother of all, the all-comprising, all-bounding, the first-born, the never-swerving, the never-tiring holy ten, the keyholder of all".
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:35 AM on May 10, 2012

True fact: Many Mormon churches have basketball courts in them. Nice ones, with super nice wood floors so smooth if you were a kid and wearing the right kind of polyester pants you could run and then slide on your knees or ass across it. These large basketball courts are often paired with a large stage for performances, or used as a hall for dances or wedding or - horror - potlucks of noodles and jello.

But why a basketball court? With nice hoops and glass spring-loaded backboards and professional markings and everything? Why not a tennis court, or just a ping pong ball table in the basement? Or perhaps a bowling alley?

Why basketball? I never could figure that out.
posted by loquacious at 3:46 AM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are blowing alleys in churches?

According to Zappa that would make sense.
posted by TedW at 4:23 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

This may explain the decline in church attendance. I know I would have been more likely to keep going to church if there'd been pool tables.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:27 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great post! I saw that headline the other day, and was surprised to hear it, having never heard of or been to a church with a bowling alley. I have been to some churches with basketball courts, though. I would figure it's an easy way to provide some running around space for youth, while still maintaining a room that's empty enough to be multi-purpose.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:41 AM on May 10, 2012

"Why basketball? I never could figure that out."

Every basketball game I ever saw at a Mormon church turned into a fistfight, so it's my belief they should have installed boxing rings instead.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:15 AM on May 10, 2012

"Why basketball? I never could figure that out."

Dude, the entire Mormon church is just an elaborate recruiting method for BYU athletics. Look it up.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:19 AM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Jesus died for your pins!

...that we might be spared!

I used to go rehearsals in a church with a bowling alley which looked a lot like the one in the final scene of "There Will Be Blood."
posted by daisystomper at 5:21 AM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wow, awesome. We had a bowling alley in the baptist church I grew up in. It was in the "Family Life Center", which also had billiards (I'm just now remembering all the polemics against gaming by Christians in the 1800s, which is funny) and a roller skating rink and of course basketball courts. The bowling alley was rarely operational, though, that I can recall. It was two lane and pretty awesome.
posted by scunning at 5:25 AM on May 10, 2012

Oh, I'm glad you linked to Name That Peoria Landmark for a St. Anne's pic; I know that guy, he's great. I'm not sure how vital the community at St. Ann's is, since those neighborhoods used to be Irish/German Catholic/Italian immigrant communities (on the orthogonal street grid) within walking distance of some heavy industrial places on the riverfront (diagonal street grid); today they're mostly black neighborhoods that are mostly baptist/evangelical/non-denominational. I guess the fact that the school was closed means it's not so vital.

"Why basketball? I never could figure that out."

My (Catholic) parish is fundraising for a new parish hall, and they're talking about putting in basketball hoops. They're going to have a big multipurpose room, so they figured, why not? A gym will give the kids somewhere to go in the winter when there's not much else on; you can run parish rec leagues; a gym can have a stage on one end for plays and stuff and fit a billion tables for banquets. (But yes, now that you mention it, every Mormon temple I've visited has had a basketball gym in the community hall.)

One of the baptist churches in the "bad" neighborhoods around here has a boxing gym ... same theory as it always was, teach kids discipline and to channel their aggression appropriately, and get teenaged boys (in particular) involved with a neighborhood organization with responsible adults.

There's still a fairly robust bowling culture; I'm always surprised by how many people I know bowl in a league. I guess it's a little more air-conditioned and four-season-friendly than slow-pitch softball, which is the other big leisure sport for large groups around here.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:49 AM on May 10, 2012

Bowling alleys and billiards (but not pool, I assume, due to it starting with P which rhymes with T).

Also no card rooms, which is likely related to the dumbest thing my mom ever said to me. I was going to babysit the preacher's kid at the parsonage and I picked up some cards to play solitaire. She nixed that, incredulously intoning "Devil cards at the preacher's house on Sunday?!"

No idea where that came from, as we played cards (even pretend poker) all the time.
posted by DU at 5:52 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Interesting. Let me know when the Baptists start including Pole Dancing.
posted by Mcable at 6:15 AM on May 10, 2012

If you've ever driven the Interstate highways of the Bible Belt, Mcable, it's pretty clear that the Baptists, Southern Baptists at least, are quite fond of comely young girls pole dancing.
posted by Naberius at 6:24 AM on May 10, 2012

If they had advertised the bowling aspect of Christianity, I might have been more inclined to join up. An hour of restful sitting, a little singing, and then you grab your bowling bag and hit the alleys. Yabba dabba doo, as they say.

But do you go to the confessional to pick up your rental shoes? "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. My socks have holes and to tell you the truth they are not all that fresh. Anyway, I need a size nine."
posted by pracowity at 6:28 AM on May 10, 2012

Let me know when the Baptists start including Pole Dancing.

posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:38 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you've ever driven the Interstate highways of the Bible Belt, Mcable, it's pretty clear that the Baptists, Southern Baptists at least, are quite fond of comely young girls pole dancing.

If you've been in any of these establishments, you'd know that comely is not a strict requirement.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:43 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

loquacious: "The Dude abides."

Nobody fucks with the Jesus.
posted by schmod at 6:52 AM on May 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

There is also bowling at the Frick Museum in New York and the White House---it was big for a while.

Also growing up LDS, I was terrible at Basketball and it added to my social isolation.
posted by PinkMoose at 6:53 AM on May 10, 2012

Bowling alleys disappearing seems to be a thing in general.

There are only two bowling alleys remaining in Washington DC. One is an absurdly pretentious dive that will cost you hundreds of dollars to rent a lane for an hour, and the other is in the basement of the White House.

I'm told that the White House lanes are pretty nice.
posted by schmod at 6:59 AM on May 10, 2012

"Why basketball? I never could figure that out."

Everywhere I've been that isn't on either coast of the US has a ton of church basketball leagues, and they aren't limited to the Mormons. From what I understand, you don't need to be a member of the church to be on the team. Makes sense that they would use it as a way to get people into the church even if they aren't actively proselytizing. Basketball is popular + Not as many young people go to church = Let's get people in the door using basketball.
posted by msbrauer at 7:16 AM on May 10, 2012

She nixed that, incredulously intoning "Devil cards at the preacher's house on Sunday?!"

That sort of thing always cracked me up. 1) I don't know about you, but we were going to do whatever was the Devil's thing anyway -- just now we were going to do it somewhere you couldn't see us; 2) why did it matter if it was Sunday? If it mattered at all, shouldn't we be safer on Sunday than on other days? 3) a preacher, if he is any good at all, has seen things far far worse than kids playing cards, and probably has a better perspective on what will actually ruin their lives than their overprotective mothers do.
posted by gauche at 7:37 AM on May 10, 2012

My high school (Jesuit) had what was for a long time the largest pool hall in the state, in the basement. Kept us off the street, or something. There also is (was?) a rifle range. For reals.
posted by notsnot at 7:37 AM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yay! I'm so happy that Good Shepard in Scranton was included. We were there a few weeks ago working at a free lunch for the community and got a tour. The bowling alley is far back in the basement, and it looks like it hasn't been used for a while, but still works.
posted by elvissa at 8:12 AM on May 10, 2012

Damn. I forgot about them.

I recall going to the St. John Cantius bowling alley (Cleveland, Ohio)(only picture I could find online, here) where my parents went to high school, a handful of times on Saturday mornings. Back in the late 70s, my dad played in quite a few leagues there. My parents held a class reunion there once too.

Last time I was there, in November for a spaghetti dinner in the adjacent cafeteria (now used by a charter school), the bowling alley looked how I remember it, with an early 60s style, light pink colors above the lanes. The lanes themselves haven't been used in a few years [2006-07?] but otherwise in good condition [nothing removed]. The bartop on the opposite side of the lanes remained. There were some piled up boxes around the back area and most of the seating areas. One of the Knights told me it was only being used for storage and Knights of Columbus meetings (a dying organization).

Once in a great while, especially after tossing a few drinks with friends, we joke about taking it over. Being in Tremont (one of Cleveland's gentrifying and trendy neighborhoods), it would probably be a big hit.
posted by fizzix at 8:48 AM on May 10, 2012

Well we usually tell kids God's bowling when they hear thunder. So I guess it's true?
posted by stormpooper at 8:53 AM on May 10, 2012

There is (or at least once was) bowling in Riverside Church in New York.
Decades ago, when I was in college, there was a gym requirement. But sports just don't work for everyone, so once a week I and about ten other gym-resistant students (mostly fatties, but a couple of us superklutzes) bowled in the bowels of Riverside Church.

We were not an enthusiastic crew. Scores sometimes reached into the 50's, sometimes not.

The most entertaining part was the semi-automatic pin-spotting machines. For half the class, one spent time at the receiving end of the alley. The machine would drop the pins down on their proper positions, but had to be loaded manually--one gathered the fallen pins and loaded them into the machine while keeping a wary on the bowler, for a ball could come at any moment.
posted by hexatron at 4:30 PM on May 10, 2012

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