Catholic dioceses are contracting, creating unique opportunities for the right buyers

DECLINING ATTENDANCE: Monsignor Raymond Bastia, vicar of finance for the Diocese of Providence, said scandals involving priests who have been convicted of molestation have been a contributing factor to declining attendance at parishes, but other factors, such as a shortage of parish priests and a shift in American culture away from organized religions, also weigh heavily in the situation the Catholic Church is facing. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
DECLINING ATTENDANCE: Monsignor Raymond Bastia, vicar of finance for the Diocese of Providence, said scandals involving priests who have been convicted of molestation have been a contributing factor to declining attendance at parishes, but other factors, such as a shortage of parish priests and a shift in American culture away from organized religions, also weigh heavily in the situation the Catholic Church is facing. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, was the boyhood church of Monsignor Raymond Bastia, now the vicar for finance for the Diocese of Providence. Mt. Carmel closed in 2015, merging with another parish in Federal Hill, and is in the process of being sold for redevelopment.

The transaction is bittersweet for Bastia, who oversees such consolidation decisions.

“When I was a boy, right along Atwells Avenue there were three churches,” he said. “From Brayton Avenue, where Mt. Carmel is, all the way down to where Holy Ghost is. In between was St. John’s.”

For the most part, the grand Catholic churches built by immigrants in Rhode Island physically remain as they were 100 or more years ago, as great waves of immigration transformed Providence and surrounding cities.

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In recent decades, the church has managed a gradual decline in attendance. But the pace of building closures and consolidations is expected to accelerate in the coming years.

Based on recent history, most churches being resold will find new lives as churches for other denominations. Former parochial schools may be repurposed as public or charter schools. And rectories and nunneries often are marketed for conversion to secular apartment or condo buildings.

In a recent message to Catholics published by the weekly diocese newspaper Rhode Island Catholic, the Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, bishop of Providence, said Rhode Island’s statewide diocese has too many parishes.

“As I write, there are 134 parishes in the Diocese of Providence. That’s more than we need or can sustain,” said Tobin.

In the past few years, the diocese has created 15 clusters of churches, of two or more parishes, that are sharing resources, including priests. Twelve churches have closed and have been or will be sold, he said.

“I’ve opted to take a gradual, patient approach to pastoral planning,” he wrote. “But be assured, parish reorganization will continue and will accelerate.”

‘BUYER FOR EVERYTHING’

Beyond the impacts on the church and parishioners, the sale and potential redevelopment of church-owned properties in Rhode Island has implications for local communities.

John J. Igliozzi, a Providence city councilman, has two of the properties being sold by the diocese in his Silver Lake district. The former St. Bartholomew School, at 315 Laurel Hill Ave., could appeal to the city, which is looking for new school space, or a charter school, he said.

He attended the school for several years as a child, when the neighborhood had many Catholic families that sent their children to the parochial schools.

The now-closed rectory at Assumption of the BVM Parish and St. Anthony’s Mission Church could also be useful for the city as an expanded community center, he said.

Igliozzi, who is chairman of the council’s finance committee, said the city should always encourage the conversion of nontaxed properties to taxable property, to help restore the tax base. But many Catholic listings are in locations that need additional public services as well.

The worst outcome is that something sits empty.

“Either try to get it developed, or try to get it back online,” Igliozzi said.

The statewide diocese has more than 900 properties, according to Chief Finance Officer Mike Sabatino.

The process for identifying churches, church schools, rectory buildings and other properties for closure and sale is an involved one. The structure of the Providence diocese is somewhat unusual, in that each parish is a separate corporation, Sabatino said. The diocese itself owns relatively few properties.

As of mid-November, 11 properties were on the market, including three former parish schools, two large diocesan-owned properties and six church buildings or rectories that are owned by individual parishes.

The sites are throughout the state but generally concentrated in northern Rhode Island or Providence County.

Among the properties listed is the 8-acre St. Joseph of Cluny School in Newport, which closed in 2017 after 60 years. The land is in the Ocean Drive area, and includes three historical out-buildings that were a part of the former Arthur Curtiss James estate.

Recently subdivided into two lots, both are now under contract to separate buyers, according to David Huberman, a sales associate with Gustave White Sotheby’s International Realty.

Listed at $1.4 million and $1.2 million each, the properties attracted multiple offers once marketed as two separate lots. Although Huberman would not identify the prospective buyers, the subdivision will allow construction of a single-family home on each site.

“There are a lot more people in that price range, to be honest, than the $2.5 million to $3 million price range,” he said.

Another large property that has found a buyer is Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, in Providence, which is under agreement to Providence-based development company The Omni Group. The company hopes to redevelop the church and surrounding property as housing and commercial space.

One of the other properties under active listing is St. Jean Baptiste Church in Warren, located at 324 Main St., which was consecrated in 1882 and served immigrants of French-Canadian descent. It closed in January.

Brenda Marchwicki, the broker and owner of Providence-based BisMarc Properties LLC, is the listing agent for both the Mt. Carmel and St. Jean Baptiste churches. In the case of the Warren church, it has the benefit of a sizable parking lot and it’s located in an area that has become more desirable.

The property, listed at $400,000, has had multiple letters of interest and the church is actively evaluating at least three proposals. “From one end of the spectrum to another,” she said. “We’ve had inquiries for residential development. We’ve had inquiries where the church would remain and would be transformed into what could be four to six residential units within the church footprint, and residential homes within the parking lot area.”

Some inquiries would include a mixed-use conversion of the site, but this would require a zoning change and add time to the transaction close.

Although church buildings can be unique, they also have a value and can be resold if marketed correctly. “We’ve sold throughout the state,” she said, of her representation for the diocese and parishes. “There’s a buyer for everything.”

NOT FOR EVERYONE

Consolidation of churches and closures are handled by a pastoral planning office within the diocese but also a committee that looks at regions within the state. “They’re working with the congregations that are there, to put together a plan that is submitted to the bishop,” said Bastia.

Tobin, who could not be reached for an interview, has not publicly identified which church properties are being considered for closure.

Sabatino and Bastia said closures are made through a collaborative process that takes into account the physical condition of the buildings, the vitality of the parish and the financial situation.

“Ultimately, it is Bishop Tobin’s decision. But it is a decision that he makes with proper consultation, including the pastoral planning committee,” Bastia said.

In some ways, the real estate functions of the Catholic diocese are handled as any other business might manage real estate holdings. An office within the diocese is assigned to the properties. And once a decision is made to sell, the church obtains three appraisals of the property.

But the church is not deciding on which property to sell based on its resale value or timing the market. So, although many commercial developments are now moving forward in Rhode Island, the diocese has not tried to push its properties onto the market to take advantage.

In the case of Mt. Carmel, whose congregation merged with Church of the Holy Ghost, the church building had substantial needs for repair, Sabatino said.

In April, the diocese sold the former St. Casimir’s Church on Smith Street to a Protestant Christian congregation that is expanding its footprint in the Northeast.

The Northeastern Conference of the Seventh Day Adventist Church purchased St. Casimir’s for $225,000. The modest price reflected the condition of the building and the absence of parking, Sabatino said.

For the churches and related buildings, most of the potential buyers are other churches.

In February 2013, the diocese sold a former office building on Broad Street to Grace Harbor Community Church, an evangelical Baptist church.

The Catholic diocese will not sell to just anyone. Each of its property sales has a deed restriction that prevents the purchaser from using the site for practices that violate Catholic beliefs, including abortion services. One property that sold recently prevents the sale of pornographic materials as part of a deed restriction.

If another denomination asks about a property, church leaders review their creed and statement of faith. “As long as we find it is in basic agreement, the bishop reviews them, and has us review them, and we’re comfortable with that,” Bastia said.

He wouldn’t say which faiths are off-limits, but when asked, Sabatino said the church had sold a former parish school to a Muslim congregation.

Practices are evolving, Bastia acknowledged, as the disposition of church properties becomes more common.

When asked if there was any church that the diocese would never sell, Bastia and Sabatino simultaneously looked outside a conference room window, at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.

“That’s the mother church,” Sabatino said. “That won’t go.”

Once the decision has been made to sell, the church deconsecrates the buildings, stripping them of artifacts and symbols as much as possible without damaging the structure. Statues, artwork, altars and stained-glass windows are often removed.

When possible, the artifacts are repurposed. The stained-glass windows in the Mt. Carmel church will be incorporated into a new mausoleum at the chapel at St. Ann Cemetery in Cranston, Bastia said.

Churches are the most difficult buildings to redevelop. Their architecture doesn’t lend itself easily to a new purpose.

Rectories and convents are more easily adapted into new housing. School buildings also can be readapted more easily than a church.

Providence now has several former Catholic properties being converted to new apartments.

In addition to Mt. Carmel, which The Omni Group has proposed for redevelopment, the city approved a zoning change that will allow the conversion of a former convent with frontage on Eighth and Ninth streets, in the Hope neighborhood, into an apartment building.

A former parish school, connected to Holy Name Church, is being converted to multifamily residential, explained Bob Azar, the city’s deputy director of planning.

DECLINING ATTENDANCE

Church closures and consolidation are not unique to the Diocese of Providence. Across the Northeast and Midwest, Catholic dioceses are contracting.

In Pittsburgh, the bishop in May announced the diocese would close 60 percent of its parishes over the next five years.

The Hartford Archdiocese – which oversees the Providence diocese – announced in May 2017 that 59 parishes would merge in three Connecticut counties, and 26 of those buildings would close, according to the independent website Crux.

The archbishop attributed the decision to declining attendance at Mass, Crux reported.

The Most Rev. Edgar M. da Cunha, bishop of Fall River, announced in May that the Fall River diocese would spend 12 to 18 months encouraging collaboration among churches, a process that would lead to some closings or mergers, according to The Sun Chronicle.

In late November, the massive St. Anne’s Church in Fall River held its final Mass, attracting 500 parishioners.

In Rhode Island, church leaders identify similar patterns at work: declining attendance at Mass and in enrollment at parish schools, a shortage of parish priests and a shift in American culture away from organized religions.

The scandals involving priests who have been convicted of molestation, activities that Catholics now understand spanned decades, is also a contributing factor to declining attendance, acknowledged Bastia.

“I don’t believe it’s the only factor. I think the other things also weigh very, very heavily in the situation we’re facing right now,” Bastia said. “It’s a difficult [issue] to quantify.”

Not all parishes are shrinking.

In Rhode Island, the churches in South County have had larger attendance, reflecting the growth of suburban areas. Two parishes in North Kingstown have expanded in the past 10 years into new and larger facilities.

Within cities, some parishes are having a resurgence thanks to the arrival of Spanish-speaking immigrants from countries such as the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Ecuador.

In the Armory District of Providence, a part of the West Side, St. Charles Catholic Church – originally established by immigrants of French-Canadian descent – has a Spanish Mass on Sunday that’s often standing-room only.

The Rev. John Unsworth, who leads St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church in North Kingstown, said the parish expanded into a new church in 2009 after it determined that fire codes strengthened after the deadly fire at The Station nightclub in 2003 would make renovation and expansion of its original church too expensive.

The new facility can accommodate 600 people. Each weekend, about 500 to 600 people attend the four Masses, he said.

The parish was established in 1874, originally by immigrants of French-Canadian and Irish descent who had settled in North Kingstown to work in mills and factories.

Unsworth attributed the recent growth in attendance to new development in the community. More than 100 condo units have been built in the past few years between Wickford and Davisville villages, in three different developments, he said. Most of the occupants are older and looking to connect to a community.

In the cities, the opposite pattern is having an impact.

“Many of the churches in the urban areas were built at a time when there were many Catholic people there, working in the mills and the factories,” he said. “They were built in another era. The needs today of those cities are very different. Those people are no longer there. Their children and grandchildren now live in South County.”

NEW ERA

In the cities, the concentration of historical churches reflects the immigrant experience of the 1880s into the early 20th century.

As groups of immigrants came into Providence and other cities from different countries, they settled in areas and sought comfort in their own traditions.

The diocese, established in 1872, expanded with successive waves of immigrants. Each group, the French, the Italian, the Irish, the Polish, and then the Portuguese, among the larger waves, had enough people to support their own native churches, called national parishes. These parishes appeared across Rhode Island, offering Masses in Latin, as was the tradition then, but also homilies in the native language, explained Bastia.

So, in his childhood neighborhood of Federal Hill, the immigrants were Italian. There were enough to justify two congregations for immigrants – Holy Ghost and Mt. Carmel, as well as the St. John Roman Catholic Church, what was referred to by the diocese as a territorial parish, for more-established residents.

The two Italian parishes, he noted, were not even a mile apart. In between was St. John’s, a church that has since been razed and is now marked by a small park on Atwells Avenue.

“What has happened over the course of many decades now is the need for those national parishes and those congregations is not the same,” Bastia said. “Because they’ve moved. They’ve acclimated. They’ve gone to the suburbs. Everyone speaks English. Generations have passed,” he said. “There isn’t the same need at the present time for those people who built those churches.”

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at Macdonald@PBN.com.