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ND alum teams up with Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate to address Church property crisis

| Thursday, April 15, 2021

With ownership of around 177 million acres of land, the Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental landowner in the world. But with not all clergy and parish finance councils having the proper training and resources necessary to properly utilize this property, Notre Dame alumnus David Murphy realized the Church is missing out on opportunities all around the world to engage with its extensive property to advance the Catholic mission. 

Several dioceses across the country — such as Pittsburgh and Chicago — are contracting and merging parishes Murphy, now a Holy Cross seminarian, said. Murphy teamed up with the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate (FIRE) to explore how to help struggling parishes gain the resources they need to more effectively utilize their property.

After graduating in 2014, Murphy eventually wound up in San Diego as a Navy helicopter pilot. While attending a local parish, he noticed the Church had lots of valuable, underutilized property. Murphy addressed this issue by founding Quo Vadis, a non-profit organization that places young adults in Catholic properties to help revitalize parishes and better utilize the property.

Courtesy of Nik Guiney C.S.C.
St. Casimir parish in South Bend is currently home to a Quo Vadis residence, where young adults work to actively engage the parish,

Murphy’s work at Quo Vadis led him to connect with FIRE and begin to confront the Church’s property issue. Murphy said the ability to consult with real estate experts at FIRE proved to be invaluable, especially considering he has no formal real estate background.

“I would pick up the phone and have access to alums [and] people who are industry experts in this to kind of say like, ‘Hey, I’m seeing this, why?’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh you know here’s a great answer,’” Murphy said.  

He referred to his role as that of a “bridge builder” —  he directs owners of Church-owned property to the proper channels where they can find people who have the resources and know-how to properly engage the property.

“FIRE’s role is much more of a think tank,” Murphy said. “We would hand off the actual execution to the pastor with the people to do the action part of it.”

To do this, Murphy developed a database with examples of possibilities of how to transform a property. He said these possibilities in the “playbook” include turning vacant or new properties into coffee shops, women’s shelters, retreat centers, young adult housing and more. 

‘We’re just scratching the surface’: Student team addresses school closures

Over the winter session, Murphy led two student teams from FIRE in projects addressing the Church property issues. Murphy assisted sophomore Lauren Vallace and junior Josef Weber, as the students worked together to gather data from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) to diagnose reasons for why Catholic schools across the country are shutting down and to make recommendations about how these properties can be repurposed and more effectively used.

With almost no information about repurposing Catholic schools for public use, Vallace said Murphy gave her and Weber a lot of autonomy to decide how to go about the project. 

“[Murphy] said ‘This is your project. You find what you’re interested in and roll with it because we’re literally scratching the surface on all this — there’s no data out on any of it,’” Vallace said. 

One of the first people Vallace consulted was the pastor at her own local parish, St. Francis Xavier, because it had merged with another parish. She said her pastor put her in contact with the real estate sales manager at the Archdiocese of Chicago, which proved to be a strong starting point for Vallace.

Vallace and Weber began by going through the NCEA’s list of school closures and seeing if the parishes had policies regarding who the property could be leased out to. 

“The majority of them literally had nothing on their website about it whatsoever, and so that’s when we really, at least me and Joseph, really realized our work is extremely necessary right now because once they hit that point [considering selling property] most of these dioceses have no idea what to do from there,” Vallace said.

Vallace said this step was complex because if the property is used for a for-profit activity, it will lose its status as property tax exempt. Additionally, she said the parishes are bound to Canon Law, and selling a Church asset requires approval from multiple levels.

Vallace and Weber then conducted more interviews to assist them in creating a document with a list of examples of how to repurpose closed Catholic schools. After gathering data for their document, Vallace and Weber began sharing ideas with South Bend parish St. Adalbert’s with the goal of eventually working on-site at the parish. 

“I think actually being able to be on site and doing this in real time will really help us to revise [the data set] in any way we can and make it even more helpful for all,” Vallace said.

Vallace added that FIRE hopes to further collaborate with the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) to help Church leaders gain the access and resources necessary to act on the data gathered by Vallace, Weber and FIRE.

“We’re in such a unique position because Notre Dame is able to take on this huge leadership role and just get the ball rolling with this,“ Vallace said. “And you know we can make really fast moves in terms of kind of addressing the issue.” 

Students aid struggling Chicago parishes

The other FIRE student team working on Murphy’s initiative over winter break consisted of junior Hailey Maggelet and fifth-year architecture student Macartan Commers. The two students evaluated six Church properties around the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago. 

Maggelet and Commers were tasked with developing recommendations for the parishes instructing them how to utilize the properties without selling them. They also ensured the properties complied with zoning ordinances.

“And that kind of drove a lot of our recommendations, just kind of looking at what aligns with the Catholic Church, what is actually a viable option and how can we make it as low cost as possible,” Maggelet said.

In addition to working remotely, Maggelet said another difficulty was that the old age of some of the churches posed structural issues, which made designing new purposes for the buildings difficult. 

“A lot of these buildings were built in the early 1900s and so they had a lot of structural issues,” she said. 

However, Maggelet said one parish, Holy Angels, had a newer campus which allowed for more opportunities. As part of their recommendation for the property, Maggelet and Commers proposed the idea of opening up a thrift or resale store and installing solar panels on the roof of the school.

“We can cut the property maintenance costs and electricity bills and you can actually make some money from [the solar panels], and you don’t really have to do much for it,” Maggelet said. 

Other recommendations from the students included converting the convent at St. Anselm parish into affordable housing and turning the vacant school at St. Ambrose parish into a trade school.

Maggelet said the project over winter break was just the “tip of the iceberg“ and she is excited for the future possibilities that this initiative presents.

“I definitely see potential for our work going somewhere and having an impact with these different parishes that really face adversity and have pretty difficult monetary situations,” Maggelet said.

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