But how do you sell a church? And to whom? James Elcock is with Colliers International, a real estate company that specializes in hospitals, museums, universities, and churches. He handled the sale of a number of the Archdiocese’s properties.
Elcock said they cast a wide net.
“We marketed the properties without an asking price,” he said. “The church wanted to be very inclusive and wanted anybody and everybody to feel free to tour the property and put an offer in to but the property.”
The vast majority of prospective buyers fell into one of three categories:
“Other religious organizations that were looking for worship and community space, real estate developers who were looking for a conversion to either apartments or condominiums, and the third group is we saw institutions. Other non-profit institutions who would come out and think they might be able to use it for theater space, or gallery space, or again community space,” Elcock said.
According to the Archdiocese, 41 parish properties have been sold for a total of almost $81 million to date. Eight are still used as churches (but not by Catholics), a few are community centers, one is a school. But the vast majority of churches have been turned into housing.
Lisa Alberghini is the president of the Archdiocese Planning Office for Urban Affairs (PAOU). An independent non-profit affiliated with the Archdiocese, they build affordable long-term housing in neighborhoods throughout the archdiocese.
“Our job is to complete the work of the church, and helping get people from the streets into a permanent secure affordable home,” Alberghini said.
PAOU purchased three church properties, including St. Aiden’s in Brookline.
“It happened that that church was on the historic register and it was the baptismal place of President Kennedy and many members of the Kennedy family so there was a lot of interest in keeping that church and preserving it.”
But retrofitting an old church is expensive work, and when affordable housing is your business, expensive projects can present a problem.
“What we did was we kept the church,” Alberghini said. “That was renovated for market rate housing. We took some of the proceeds from the sale of those units to help essentially internally subsidize the affordable units that were built on the site.”
Today, 20 affordable rental units and 16 first-time buyer home units sit aside 23 market rate condos on St. Aiden’s campus.
Not all church sales have been without their controversy. Some developers have met resistance from neighborhood associations. And then there is the case of St. Mary Star of the Sea in East Boston. In 2007, the Archdiocese sold the property to a South Boston photographer and businessman, for $850,000. The expectation was that he’d convert the property into a photography studio and residential units. Just weeks later, he flipped the property for a $1.8 million profit, selling it to the Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
But James Elcock says that in his experience, the process has largely been a win-win-win - for developers, the Archdiocese, and the communities.
“We had a very good experience, and as I drive by these other buildings today, they're all happily reused and vibrant. And I don't think the communities have lost anything by this transition in ownership.”
And perhaps that is some small comfort for parishioners whose long battle to save their churches appears to have come to an end this week.