Church Puts Mansion on Block

By Eric Convey, Jennifer Rosinski and Scott Van Voorhis
Boston Globe
December 4, 2003

The Archdiocese of Boston will shed the most visible symbol of its worldly success to help bring an end to the darkest chapter in its history.

In a series of meetings yesterday, advisers to Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley agreed to sell the three-story Commonwealth Avenue mansion - with 27.6 acres of park-like grounds - that had been home to Boston church leaders from the 1920s until O'Malley moved into an apartment behind the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last month.

There's no price tag yet, but archdiocesan spokesman the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne said church officials are "very confident" the proceeds, along with insurance money, will be enough to fund an $85 million settlement with alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse.

The announcement comes just three days before O'Malley plans to brief priests on the process for choosing which parishes to close next year.

"The main reason why we're announcing it at this time is to make it very clear to the people of the archdiocese that the funding for the settlement is not coming from the sale of present parish assets, from the Capital Campaign or from the Catholic Appeal - as the archbishop pledged," Coyne said.

Real estate experts estimated the property, which encompasses about half the chancery grounds but does not include St. John's Seminary or church offices, will fetch as much as $20 million.

The prospect of development stunned Brighton residents who use the lush oasis as an unofficial public park.

"I would be enraged if someone built an apartment block there," said Martin Nuth, who bought a home overlooking the land just three weeks ago. Neighbor Cathy Grinold said she fears Boston College will buy the property and erect student housing.

"This is a beautiful area and a quiet place. We'd like to keep it that way," she said.

Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said the school is "interested" in acquiring the property and downplayed the likelihood of a building boom if it does.

"We need a place where a student can throw a frisbee, sit under a tree and read a book," Dunn said. "Our campus is beautiful, but we lack that space . . . that's what we'd have in mind."

Boston College occupies about 150 landlocked acres across Commonwealth Avenue. But its prospective space crunch eased last month when the state Supreme Judicial Court rejected an attempt by Newton officials to block construction of a major three-building complex.

Michael Joyce of commercial real estate firm Richards Barry Joyce and Partners said B.C. might not be the only academic suitor.

"You could even have Harvard reaching in there. They love land," he said.

The site is large enough for as many as 270 high-end condos or 20 larger, mansion-style homes, said Gary Lemire, senior vice president and partner at CB Richard Ellis/Whittier Partners. "It could be worth a lot if you could do residential there."

Any construction plans would likely pit Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who wants more housing, against neighborhood activists who have already fought pitched battles against builders.

In the meantime, Catholics have to wrestle with the symbolic meaning of losing a once-prized edifice.

Thomas O'Connor, University Historian at Boston College and author of the book "Boston Catholics," said the most significant aspect of the sale will be symbolic.

"It is a utilitarian building. If it goes, it will not hurt either the work or the goals of the church or the archdiocese. If they sold off a piece of the seminary, it would," he said. "On the other hand, it will obviously be a sad moment. Because while it was not essential to the work of the church, nevertheless it was a visible and very dramatic sign of its position and its role and its place in Boston."


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