Mergers Leave Parishes with Prime Real Estate

By Juliet Fletcher
Press of Atlantic City

August 17, 2008

Silvia Rodriguez was married under the steeple of Our Lady of Victories, a white clapboard Catholic church near her home in Buena. She has worshipped there for about 40 years and recently began attending Tuesday evening Mass, where she prays in Spanish.

Like many, the news that the church might be vacated within a year seemed to have passed her by.

"Oh, no!" she said when she heard of a proposed parish-merger plan that would move services to a nearby parish yet to be named. "No, because - what about all the years?" Standing on the church's neatly tended brick path, she appeared to mentally tally the years. "It's like our house."

But, just like houses, churches and most church land have a value beyond the emotional.

Under the merger proposed by the Diocese of Camden in April, 124 parishes will become 66, and properties in 32 parishes will have no designated use. Critics fear those churches will sit empty or be sold.

An analysis of tax rolls across the diocese's territory reveals churches worth a total of about $59 million. Add other parish holdings - from rectories to gardens to vacant lots, as well as affected missions that are expected to merge with parishes - and the land is worth more than $89 million.

Parishoners arrives for evening mass at St. Anthony of Padua catholic church in Hammonton, Thursday August 14, 2008. Story explores parish costs following the Archdiocese of Camden's order of the consolidation of churches and property.

These lots cover hundreds of acres across six counties and occupy sites next to highways and bayside towns.

They include a $27 million church site at St. Vincent Pallotti, in Haddon Township, Camden County, whose property includes a school that will not be closed - and St. Anthony's Mission in Commercial Township, Cumberland County, assessed at $129,200.

They include properties from the Holy Spirit parish and school in Absecon, which total $13 million in value, and which will join Our Lady Star of the Sea parish in Atlantic City.

The decisions over those properties fall to the appointed priests who guide the creation of the new parishes, whose names are expected to be announced before Labor Day.

Diocesan officials deny property values were a deciding factor in which parishes would close. "To even speculate that, that's just not true," said Andrew Walton, spokesman for the diocese, who said consolidation goals included addressing a priest shortage and increasing ministries to encourage lifelong faith. He said the diocese has not conducted independent assessments of those parish properties.

But he confirmed that parishioner groups who made merger recommendations to the bishop considered the broader financial picture for each parish.

"All parishes have assets. And some have debts," he said. "And sometimes, by merging a financially struggling parish with another one, you create a single, more vibrant one."

All properties belonging to a merging parish would transfer to the new one, and any sale revenue would go to parish accounts. But those could be used to defray expenses.

Walton described 30 to 40 of the diocese's existing parishes as "financially troubled." Those parishes repeatedly failed to pay operating expenses or contractors' bills, and might owe large sums to the diocese.

St. Mary's parish in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, which has so far strongly opposed its planned merger with four other churches, including Our Lady of Victories, has run a deficit for four of the past five years, he said.

The diocese collects 10 percent of all parish donations, to cover the costs of services, but it also issues loans. In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, loans to parishes totaled more than $15 million, according to an auditor's report. Parishes also owed an additional $5.4 million in debt to the diocese.

Not all parish property will be unused: Cemeteries belonging to merging parishes are held in perpetuity, Walton said, and operating school facilities would not be closed. The $89 million total includes one property in Cape May County - St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in Middle Township - despite mergers there. Four churches in Cape and Atlantic counties will be kept as worship sites but will operate only during the summer for shore visitors.

And not all unused property is always sold. When Our Lady of Victories merged with St. Michael's in 2001, one of the two available rectories was mothballed and eventually demolished. The land was not sold, however, according to parish volunteers.

Nevertheless, Walton said he sympathized with parishioners such as Rodriguez. The parish merger process has been planned to take as long as two years, and that slow pace was a deliberate move by the diocese, he said.

"Attachment to the building itself is a reality. They say, when you move ... it's one of those life events that's on a par with a death in the family," he said. "But at the same time, how many of us still live in the house we lived in as children?"

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In 32 Diocese of Camden parishes up for merger, church properties have not been named future worship sites. According to tax rolls, those parish properties and affected missions are valued as follows:

Atlantic County

Holy Spirit, Absecon$13,054,200

St. Peter's, Pleasantville$4,272,200

St. Anthony, Hammonton$946,700

Our Lady of Victories, Buena$3,242,300

St. Bernard Mission, Weymouth Township$137,600

Cape May County

Mission of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Middle Twp.$506,700

Cumberland County

Immaculate Heart of Mary, Vineland$1,131,700

St. Anthony's Mission, Commercial Township$129,200

St. John Bosco, Millville$1,610,900

Camden County

Holy Name, Camden$803,400

St. Cecilia, Pennsauken$176,800

St. Veronica, Pennsauken$399,300

St. Bartholomew, Camden$158,600

Church of the Transfiguration, Haddon Twp.$4,134,300

St. Vincent Pallotti, Haddon Township $27,237,700

St. Maurice, Brooklawn$1,012,100

Holy Maternity, Audubon $827,700

Queen of Heaven, Cherry Hill$3,213,200

Holy Rosary, Cherry Hill$3,256,600

Our Lady of Grace, Somerdale$4,348,900

St. Gregory, Magnolia$3,210,400

St. Maria Goretti, Runnemede$1,327,400

St. Jude, Gloucester Township$3,086,200

St. John Neumann, Winslow Township$808,300

St Edward, Pine Hill$956,100

Blessed John XXIII, Winslow Township$332,900

Mission of St. Anthony, Waterford Township $667,700

Gloucester County

St. Anne, Westville $1,332,100

St. John the Evangelist, Paulsboro$863,900

Most Holy Redeemer, Deptford$2,360,500

St. Catherine, Clayton$1,793,000

St. John Vianney, Deptford$387,700

St. Mary, Franklin Township$466,900

Salem County

St. James, Penns Grove$1,353,600

St. Ann, Elmer$505,800


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