Archdiocese has many sites with excess acreage; Parishes see shrinking populations
By Jack Sullivan and Eric Convey
While the Herald tallied only those properties no longer used by active churches, schools, hospitals or cemeteries, there are scores of parcels that abut church land that could be sold or used for other purposes.
The Herald did not count these properties in the total but found hundreds of acres of land surrounding churches and rectories as well as towns that have multiple parishes for dwindling populations.
In some communities, Catholic churches are set on large parcels that there is no separate value for but for which there is a precedent for the archdiocese slicing off pieces of the land and selling it.
In Bedford, for instance, the archdiocese carved 5 acres from the Concord Street parcel where St. Michael's is situated and sold it to the town for $1.89 million earlier this year.
In Waltham, city officials are negotiating for a 25-acre parcel behind Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted on Trapelo Road. The city has offered $2.5 million for the land, which the archdiocese received as a donation from Middlesex County decades ago.
In the past four years, the Boston archdiocese has closed or consolidated 26 parishes in its 144 cities and towns, but a number of communities still hold services in multiple churches within their borders.
In the five counties comprising the archdiocese, there are roughly 2.1 million Catholics out of the 3.6 million total population. Urban areas, such as Boston and Lowell, are heavily Catholic, while the smaller suburbs have, on average, a lower percentage of Catholics.
In Boston, where the population decreased nearly 19 percent from the 1990 census to 550,000 in the latest census, 59 parishes dot the city's neighborhoods, including 11 in Dorchester alone. The number of churches averages out to slightly more than 1.2 churches per square mile.
Lowell has 13 parishes within its 13.8 square miles, including several that cater to the growing non-English speaking groups.
Three churches serve the town of Belmont, with a total population of 24,000 and 4.7 square miles, while Salem, with 38,000 residents, has seven active parishes inside 8.7 square miles.
Wellesley, with a population of 26,000, has three parishes within its 10 square miles and its three rectories are valued in excess of $1.5 million in the tony town.
In Tewksbury, the church owns 52 acres of land, described by assessor's records as "vacant," near a cemetery. The property, valued at $224,600, appears to be undeveloped.
Brockton's Cardinal Spellman High School sits on a 32.6 acre plot that city assessors have valued at $3 million for the land alone.
The city is also home to seven churches within its 21.5 square miles. St. Margaret's Church, less than a mile from St. Patrick's, both on Main Street, has been rumored by city officials to be up for sale because dwindling attendance and donations are hindering long- needed repairs. The church, rectory and its surrounding property are valued at $1.5 million.
Bellingham, where the total town population is just under 16,000, has three churches serving the Catholic residents, including two - Assumption and St. Blaise - that are less than a few miles apart. And St. Brendan's is a short drive from either. St. Brendan's sits on a 42-acre lot on Hartford Avenue while St. Blaise overlooks 30.2 acres off South Main Street.
St. Anne's Church and land, valued at $1.5 million, sits on 15.2 acres in a residential neighborhood in Littleton approved for development.
The archdiocese also rents out vacant space in some of the buildings it owns that still house other entities such as parochial schools and shelters. The archdiocese owns a block of property - from 2214 to 2224 Dorchester Ave. - valued at $3,845,000. Part of the parcel is occupied by St. Gregory School but other enterprises, including an elder services angency, also use buildings on the property.
Down the street on Centre Avenue, St. Mark School shares its $4.5 million complex with the Neighborhood Charter School.
Even some clergy have suggested the church might do well to shed certain assets to help deal with the sexual-abuse scandal crisis.
The Rev. Robert J. Carr, a supporter of Bernard Cardinal Law and staff priest at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, complained on his Web site that the church was acting like a "corporation." He went on to suggest selling the properties of schools that were not distinctively Catholic could make sense.
Some assessors and church officials have argued the architecture of some of the buildings lower the market value of the properties because of the extensive renovations that would have to be undertaken to make them amenable to different uses.
But there are examples of churches used for other purposes. On Walnut Street in Newton, an old Gothic-style church was transformed into a Chinese restaurant that went out of business, and the old stone structure is now being leased for office space.
In addition, some local Realtors said a growing number of religious groups are searching for properties where they can hold services and house administrative offices.
"I have three different church organizations that are looking for churches," said Bob Epstein, a commercial real estate broker with GMAC Carlson Realty in Framingham. "There's plenty of market for church space. All of a sudden in the last two, three months, it's just popped up. I just rented one group space in Milford. They're looking to spend decent money. There is a market if it's marketed."
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