December 29, 2019
By Aaron C. Davis
After Bishop Michael J. Bransfield was banished from his post as head of the Catholic Church in West Virginia, the church-owned residence he had lived in was put up for sale. It was a historic 9,200-square-foot Colonial Revival-style house with five bay windows that was once known as Elmcrest. Bransfield had spent $4.6 million to restore it to his exacting taste.
The diocese did not hire a real estate agent, advertise the property’s sale online or hold an open house. Instead, as allegations of sexual and financial misconduct against Bransfield spilled into public view in June, the church sold the property to a wealthy Wheeling, W.Va., resident for $1.2 million.
Church officials said the private sale was a way to avoid paying commission to real estate agents, but it also had the effect of keeping the public from taking the full measure of Bransfield’s extravagance and excess.
More than just an opulent private retreat for a high-spending bishop, Elmcrest was the site where the heavy-drinking cleric quaffed Cointreau and made unwanted sexual overtures toward younger priests in a basement with a custom-made sunken bar, according to a confidential report by church investigators for the Vatican completed earlier this year. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the report and published a redacted version online on Dec. 23.
In his 13 years as bishop, Bransfield spent more than $2.4 million traveling the world, often by private jet, and gave fellow clerics hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts that originated from the diocese’s accounts, church documents show. Nowhere did he spend more church money than on the turn-of-the-century mansion at 52 Elmwood Place in Wheeling, according to investigators.
What started as a modest renovation before Bransfield’s arrival in 2005 soon sprawled, at his insistence, into a costly undertaking, according to the construction manager, architect and four others involved in the project. By the time it was finished, the residence would feature a $20,000 dining room table, a master bath with a heated floor and a climate-controlled wine cellar that could store hundreds of bottles, they said.
“It was always, ‘this’ or ‘that’ is what the bishop wants,” said Jim Baller, who served as the construction manager during most of the renovation.
Baller said Bransfield wanted trees planted to create a buffer between the house and nearby Interstate 70. He also wanted parts of the seven acres surrounding the home landscaped and large areas covered with sod, Baller said. A fish pond and waterfall were built as the centerpiece of the grounds.
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