MC’s Tricia Bruce receives grants, faculty fellowship to support research

MC’s Tricia Bruce receives grants, faculty fellowship to support research

July 10, 2018

Dr. Tricia Bruce, Maryville College associate professor of sociology, has received grants from the Louisville Institute and the Appalachian College Association to support research on “church conversions,” or physical spaces that transition from religious purposes into non-religious purposes.

Bruce’s research will serve as the basis for a book manuscript, which she expects to complete in late 2019 and will be her fifth published book.

“This topic captures a notable challenge facing religious institutions in North America today: what to do with ‘old’ churches?” Bruce wrote in her proposal for the project. “When, why and how do religious structures ‘undo’ sacredness to move into the realm of the ‘profane’ when a religious community departs? How do they rebuild community, albeit differently? Centrally: What happens to religious buildings when they are no longer used for ‘religious’ purposes? How does ‘church’ repurposing (re)shape neighborhoods … and residents’ relationships to religion and community?”

Bruce’s research is “poised to inform a wide inquiry into the place of religion in modern cities, where declines of affiliation and attendance foreshadow declines in infrastructure needs. Religious buildings stand as residual cultural markers, when (if) preserved. ‘Church’ in the city takes new meanings,” the proposal states.

In addition to answering the question of “what to do with ‘old’ churches,” Bruce points to multiple reasons in her rationale for the project. Amidst urban renewal and change, religion scholars are increasingly turning to the study of space, and studying religious buildings matters for understanding urban placemaking.

Additionally, “trends in religious affiliation and attendance among Americans portend ever-greater urgency to questions of what happens to un- or under-utilized religious space,” Bruce said.

Her study will include field observation and in-depth interviews at 24 converted (or converting) religious buildings in four regions of the United States – Northeast, Midwest, South and West – this summer.

Bruce, whose research and teaching interests include the sociology of religion, Catholicism, organizations, social movements, and immigration, as well as applied sociology, is the author of Faithful Revolution: How Voice of the Faithful Is Changing the Church (Oxford University Press, 2014) and co-editor of Polarization in the US Catholic Church (Liturgical Press, 2016). Bruce’s research on church conversions is a natural bridge from her most recent book, Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church (Oxford University Press, 2017), which explores how the US Catholic Church is responding at the local level to unprecedented cultural, racial, linguistic, ideological and political diversification. While conducting research for that book, she encountered numerous church conversions.

Research for her forthcoming book on church conversions goes more explicitly beyond Roman Catholicism, Bruce said, adding that she is eager to expand her research beyond the Catholic Church. She also plans to train and incorporate undergraduate students in this research.

Bruce Completes Faculty Research Fellowship at Durham University

In January 2018, Bruce completed a fellowship-in-residence with Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion and Centre for Catholic Studies in Durham, England.

The collaboration with Durham University allowed Bruce to add an international dimension to research for her forthcoming book on church conversions.

During her month-long residency, Bruce identified UK-based case studies, interviewed comparable religious and real estate professionals and expanded her literature base. She also engaged interdisciplinary ideas alongside scholars in theology and religious studies in the UK.

Bruce also had the opportunity to share from her latest book, Parish and Place, as well as her edited volume American Parishes (Fordham University Press, 2019).

Her Jan. 18 lecture, which was part of Durham University’s Catholic Theology Research Seminar, was titled “Parishes and Placemaking: Observations from the Making (and Unmaking) of Catholicism in Modern Communities.” The Durham Catholic Theology Research Seminar is “a regular forum for scholarly discussion of pertinent issues in the Catholic traditions of theology and church. It draws together people with specialist interests across the traditional theological disciplines (scriptural, historical, philosophical, systematic, liturgical, ethical and practical/pastoral), Catholic social thought and practice, and social-scientific approaches to Catholicism,” according to Durham University’s website.

In April, Bruce was invited back to Durham to present a keynote address on the sociology of Catholicism as a part of the Centre for Catholic Studies’ 10th Anniversary Conference.

“The relationship with Durham University has broadened my understanding of Catholicism, expanded my networks, and enhanced the global dimension of my teaching,” Bruce said. 

Bruce’s Parish and Place recognized with two book awards

Bruce’s most recent book, Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church (Oxford University Press, 2017), was recognized this summer with two book awards. The book received first place in the “Immigration” category by the Catholic Press Association, as part of the organization’s 2018 CPA Book Awards. The book also received a 2018 honorable mention award from the American Sociological Association’s Section on Sociology of Religion. Bruce will travel to Philadelphia, Pa., this fall to accept the award. 

USCCB adopts pastoral response to API Catholics, based on Bruce’s research

During their spring General Assembly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) approved a new document, “Encountering Christ in Harmony: A Pastoral Response to Our Asian and Pacific Island Brothers and Sisters,” focused on guiding the U.S. Catholic Church in addressing the pastoral needs of Asian and Pacific Island (API) Catholics. With nearly 3 million API Catholics in the U.S., API Catholics comprise the fastest-growing minority community in the U.S. Catholic Church.

The document, which has been in the works for more than two years, follows a report by a team of social scientists – including Bruce – based on a nationwide questionnaire, interviews and focus groups that asked the API community about their pastoral needs and concerns.

Bruce, along with Dr. Jerry Park of Baylor University and Dr. Stephen Cherry of the University of Houston-Clear Lake, conducted research for the report in 2014 and 2015. Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) was also involved in the project. Maryville College served as the “home” for the project, and Bruce led the assessment. Bruce was asked by the USCCB to lead the project because of her previous research on “personal” parishes in the U.S. Catholic Church.

After conducting a nationwide survey, which was translated into 14 languages, the team followed up with focus groups and interviews with key leaders as a means of bringing a mixed method approach – both quantitative and qualitative – to give USCCB “the best grassroots information they can get,” allowing them to process the information about the pastoral needs of API Catholics and add “a theological and ministerial perspective to shape a path forward,” Bruce said.

The team submitted a report to USCCB in August 2015 and presented its findings during the USCCB conference in Baltimore in November 2015. Bruce presented findings once more in June 2018, a day prior to the USCCB’s passing vote on the pastoral response letter.

“As a social scientist, it’s gratifying to participate in research with real-life implications,” Bruce said. “The study’s findings shaped conversations among leaders in the U.S. Catholic Church about how best to minister to a hugely diverse – and growing – population of Asian and Pacific Islander American Catholics.”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,146.