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Spotlight Report

Diocesan headquarters sold to BC

Brighton land nets $107.4m

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/21/2004


Correction: Because of reporting errors, the original published version of this story incorrectly said church officials would consult with the descendants of Cardinal William H. O'Connell about whether his tomb should be moved. The officials will consult with O'Connell's relatives. The story also incorrectly reported who was educated in St. Clement's Hall, which housed a seminary for undergraduates.

The 64-acre archdiocesan complex in Brighton, 45 acres of which will be sold to Boston College. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)


Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley and BC president William P. Leahy shake hands during a news conference. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)

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Statement by BC, archdiocese

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The archdiocese complex

The Archdiocese of Boston, seeking to pay off the staggering financial cost of sexual abuse by priests, has agreed to sell most of its headquarters in Brighton to neighboring Boston College for $107.4 million.

The deal between the cash-strapped Catholic diocese and the land-starved Catholic university, promises dramatic change for both institutions, as well as for the Brighton neighborhood known decades ago as ``little Rome'' because of the number of Catholic institutions there.

The archdiocese has agreed to sell Boston College 43 acres on June 30, including the mansion that was home to all four of Boston's cardinal-archbishops; St. Clement's Hall, where the archdiocese once trained high school seminarians; and the just-renovated St. William's Hall, a retreat house where the archdiocese also trains lay ministers. The price tag for those properties is $99.4 million.

But in the deal, reached late Monday, the archdiocese has also agreed in two years to sell Boston College another 3.25 acres containing the archdiocesan tribunal, where the church currently processes hundreds of marriage annulments each year. That parcel will fetch $8 million.

And the two sides have agreed that if the archdiocese should choose over the next decade to sell the final 18 acres of its property, including the chancery that serves as church headquarters and St. John's Seminary, Boston College will purchase that land for an additional $60 million.

"As I said when I first came [to Boston], people are more important than money, and the church is more important than our buildings," Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley said at a press conference yesterday announcing the deal. "It's a very difficult decision to make, but we needed to make it, and hopefully it will help us on the road to recovery, both spiritual and economic."

The deal still must be reduced to writing and then be approved by the Vatican, the boards of trustees of Boston College and St. John's Seminary, the archdiocesan finance council, and the archdiocesan college of consultors. The deal is also contingent upon an environmental review of the site, as well as a legal review of the ownership history.

Church and college officials said that they have kept the Vatican and board members informed of their talks and that they expect the proposed deal to be approved and closed June 30. The executive committee of the Boston College board voted by telephone Monday night to consent to the deal.

"This agreement in principle is historic for Boston College, comparable to our own move to Chestnut Hill in 1907 or the acquisition of what is now our lower campus in the 1950s," the Rev. William P. Leahy, the school's president, said at the press conference. "The cost of this property will be significant for us, but we could not pass up the opportunity for more land, especially parcels so close to our campus."

The deal is much larger than initially envisioned by the archdiocese; in December, church officials said they were putting 28 acres up for sale to help pay the costs of an $85 million settlement with victims of clergy sexual abuse. Officials said they expected that arranging the sale could take two years.

Church officials said that multiple real estate developers expressed interest in the land, but that Boston College won the bidding because, with its $1.15 billion endowment, the Jesuit university is able to pay cash up front, enabling the archdiocese to limit the amount of money it must pay in interest to finance its $85 million settlement with clergy abuse victims.

"This puts us on the road to recovery," said O'Malley, who was installed as archbishop last summer, seven months after the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law. "Obviously, we're still operating the diocese at a very large deficit; we have made this very large commitment to the ongoing psychological care of victims of clergy abuse; and we also have an outstanding debt of $37 million to the Knights of Columbus."

O'Malley is now preparing for another sweeping administrative decision: the closure of a significant number of parishes, which he expects to announce next month. He said yesterday that he hopes the $99 million price tag for the 43 acres will demonstrate to Catholics that the archdiocese has kept its word to pay for the abuse settlement without dipping into parish collections or archdiocesan fund-raising campaigns. The archdiocese is also suing one insurance company and negotiating with another in an effort to recoup some of the costs associated with the abuse crisis.

"It was very important for us as an archdiocese to clearly show how the funds for the legal settlement will be raised," he said. "No money from any future sales of former parish properties or assets will be used for the abuse settlements."

Church officials said they do not expect to sell the final parcels, including the chancery and the seminary, to Boston College, which secured a right of first refusal to buy the properties if they come up for sale.

"The expectation of the archdiocese is that we won't have to sell it," said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, the archdiocesan spokesman.

But some observers were skeptical, noting that the archdiocese could consolidate its two seminaries in Weston, where Blessed John XXIII National Seminary is located, and could move its offices.

"This seems more like a going out of business sale," said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, whose house is near the archdiocese's land. "These are pretty dramatic moves."

BC board chairman Jack Connors Jr. said the college would like to purchase the entire property. "Boston College is hopeful that over time we will be able to acquire the remaining parcels," he said. "BC is landlocked, and if you just take a walk through the campus, you can see there are not too many places left where we can build. We've been willing to look at things up to 20 miles away, and have, but this is diagonally across the street. This is huge."

BC and the archdiocesan headquarters are diagonally across Commonwealth Avenue from each other. The two institutions, bound by a shared faith, but separately incorporated, have had an occasionally tense history, as they have sparred over the role and orthodoxy of courses given at BC, a Jesuit school. But the institutions also collaborate in a number of ways: BC provides discounted access to courses and free access to athletic facilities for archdiocesan seminarians, while the archdiocese allows BC students to use its playing fields and parking.

And there are multiple overlapping allegiances, with numerous BC alumni serving as priests or archdiocesan officials, and many prominent local Catholics working, volunteering, or contributing financially to church and college.

"The sense of loss of our history and our patrimony here is certainly something that is very great," O'Malley said. "However, we are very pleased that it is a Catholic institution that will be the beneficiary of this sale and that the mission of the church will continue to take place on this property, as it has for so many generations."

BC officials said that in the short term, they will use the existing buildings, which include several church-owned houses along Foster Street, for administrative offices and use the undeveloped acreage as playing fields and parking. The college will also begin working with Boston officials about any future development of the land. College officials said they did not know how they might seek to develop the property, but said they have plenty of dorm space and do not foresee using the land for core campus functions.

Church officials said they are consulting with the descendants of Cardinal William H. O'Connell about whether to attempt to move O'Connell's tomb, which is on the land that is to be sold in June. O'Connell, a BC alumnus, served as archbishop of Boston from 1907 until his death in 1944.

O'Connell's predecessor, Archbishop John J. Williams, started the movement of archdiocesan offices into Brighton in 1880 when, looking for land to establish a seminary, he purchased the 26-acre Stanwood estate, which had been used as a farm, for $18,500. The Renaissance Revival archbishop's residence, home to cardinals O'Connell, Richard J. Cushing, Humberto S. Medeiros, and Law, was built in 1927; O'Malley has chosen to live in the rectory at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End.

The tribunal, which was originally the chancery, was added in 1929. The Georgian Revival style St. William's Hall, which lies along Lake Street and is distinguished by a cupola, was built in 1936 after a fire seriously damaged a building called Philosophy House on the same site; the less distinctive St. Clement's Hall, on Foster Street, was added in 1940 as a minor seminary, but recently has been leased by the archdiocese to Boston College.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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