Priest Amassed a Fortune and Left It to the Church

By Yonat Shimron
News and Observer (Raleigh, NC)
April 25, 1999

In the Bible, only Jesus could multiply five loaves of bread and two fish to feed 5,000. But Monsignor James E. McSweeney came close.

In 1950, when McSweeney was ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, he earned $ 25 a month. When he died of cancer two weeks ago at age 74, McSweeney had amassed nearly $ 1 million - the bulk of which he left to the diocese.

Unlike the biblical story, McSweeney did not perform a miracle: He had the pluck and good sense to save his money and invest it wisely. During the day, he celebrated mass, performed baptisms and heard confession. At night, McSweeney scrutinized the stock market and honed a set of financial skills his contemporaries say could have made him a very successful businessman.

The James E. McSweeney Endowment Fund will be used to help pay for the education of prospective priests and allow ordained priests to earn advanced degrees. The gift is one of the most generous ever given to the diocese and by far the largest to come from a priest. (The average diocesan cleric earns $ 11,000 a year, not including room, board and health insurance, which are provided by the church.)

"In his later years we knew he had money and that he was building up his portfolio," said the Rev. Gerald Lewis, the vicar general of the diocese and the co-executor of McSweeney's estate. "We used to tease him about it. But he said, 'It's not for me. It's for the church.' And it was."

McSweeney's legacy is testament to the diverse talents of the Catholic priesthood. While some excel at comforting the sick and composing eloquent homilies, others have a gift for organization and a knack for business.


A meticulous manager:

That was McSweeney's forte. Whether he was pastoring a church or instituting a central bookkeeping system for the diocese, McSweeney gave the Christian concept of stewardship a new meaning. Each task he undertook was meticulously and painstakenly carried out. In his will, he even thanks the diocese for the honor of serving and asks forgiveness from all he may have injured.

Recognizing his skills, the diocese moved him from parish to parish - not only to pastor the flock - which he did well, too - but to help manage the church and build the parish school. In each of his assignments, he and the institution he shepherded prospered.

"By shifting things around he'd end up with more money than he started out with," said Joan Peck, a parishioner who met McSweeney when he served as pastor of Immaculate Conception in Durham. "He was extremely clever financially."

As the administrator of St. Joseph of the Pines Hospital in Southern Pines, he placed the Catholic charity on firm financial footing and began its conversion to a skilled nursing facility. And as the diocese's chancellor, he started a savings and loan program and a diocesan archive of historical records.

But it was his ability to nurture his own investments while working around the clock that earned him the respect (and sometimes envy) of his peers.

Only two years after becoming a priest, McSweeney began to worry about his future. There was no pension or retirement plan for priests in those days and many relied on gifts from family and parishioners to see them through their declining years.

McSweeney did not want to be a burden on others.

By 1952 he had saved $ 100, and he used that money to buy 10 shares of stock - his first. A few years later, his aunt died and left him an inheritance of about $ 20,000. McSweeney bought more stock and reinvested the dividends. He kept careful records of each transaction and recorded them alphabetically in a log that included date of purchase, the price of the stock and the dividends earned. All told, he bought 30 different stocks, investing heavily in utilities, pharmaceuticals and communications companies.

"He had a philosophy that he never purchased a stock unless he had a personal experience with the company," said Debbie Rossi, the director of development at the diocese.

McSweeney once walked into a Schlotzky's Deli for a sandwich. He left with a full stomach and a determination to buy some of its stock.

Family members say McSweeney learned the value of investment growing up in a Catholic middle-class family in Lakewood, Ohio, where his father was a manager at the Ohio Bell Telephone Co.

"Our parents budgeted and talked about planning," said Daniel McSweeney, of La Jolla, Calif., the monsignor's brother. "My mother would say, 'Don't spend what you don't have. Save until you have enough. Be responsible for yourself.'"


Frugal, practical:

McSweeney took that advice seriously. He collected coins as a boy and took odd jobs during the summer to help pay for his education.

By the early 1970s, McSweeney had more than enough for his retirement. He wanted something more enduring, and he set his sights on an endowment for seminarians. (Priests in religious orders, such as Jesuits and Franciscans, take a vow of poverty. Diocesan priests do not.)

Eventually, McSweeney shared his dream with fellow priests and close friends, but not the details.

"It was common knowledge he was preparing a legacy for the church," said the Rev. John Williams, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Clinton. "But he was not preoccupied with it."

After he was diagnosed with cancer, he sat down with diocesan officials and hammered out his plan. He would give the diocese the bulk of his fortune and allow it to spend 15 percent of the dividends and capital gains earned each year until the portfolio reached $ 1 million. After that, the diocese will be able reap 85 percent of the spendable income while reinvesting the remaining 15 percent each year. The diocese expects the endowment to reach $ 1 million in less than five years, at which time it expects to use $ 85,000 a year on seminary education.

Friends say McSweeney paid a price for his investment mission. Early on, he led a frugal life. He did not travel much and spent his leisure time attending to his savings.

"Some priests go out and play golf," said Ann Buddenhagen, McSweeney's accountant. "He watched his investments."

But McSweeney was no ascetic. He loved to cook gourmet meals, wore elegant clothes and was a devotee of fine art, especially sacred art. In later years, he flew across the country to visit his siblings, nieces and nephews, each of whom received a gift in his will - whether a gold pocket watch or a set of 10 green-stemmed clear fluted wine glasses.

It was his attention to detail that most impressed those who knew him. McSweeney left nothing to chance. He even organized his own death, right down to the tombstone.

For his funeral, he selected the readings and asked Bishop F. Joseph Gossman to say the homily. A lover of classical music, he picked scores by Gabriel FaurA and Franz Joseph Haydn. And then he arranged for a string quartet to play Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings."

"I'm convinced he was not going to die until he had everything settled," Rossi said. "When he did he was ready."


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