Real estate conference details Church property trends

Within the second-floor conference rooms of McKenna Hall, the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate’s (FIRE) Church Properties Initiative (CPI) hosted its first on-campus conference last week entitled “The Future of Church Property.” Forty-three conference sessions took place, from 15-minute lightning talks to 45-minute panel discussions.

FIRE director Dan Kelly welcomed colleagues from many universities, representatives of Catholic dioceses and other religious denominations, leaders from the nonprofit world and the real estate industry, and Notre Dame faculty, staff and students.

Kelly said that CPI covers properties owned by religious organizations and nonprofits — churches, graveyards, hospitals and parking lots — although FIRE’s work spans all areas in the real estate sector.

“We’re hoping that this conference… can help to advance the ball in terms of research, in terms of education and in terms of real-world impact [for church properties],” he said.

The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental landowner in the world, according to the FIRE website, with an estimated 177 million acres

Villanova University management professor Matt Mannion led off Monday’s opening panel, addressing the challenges faced by church leaders. Villanova offers the world’s first and only Master of Science in Church Management degree.

“We have an infrastructure that’s built for a time that no longer exists so that we have more properties and facilities than we can potentially use and or sustain,” he said. “The things you own, end up owning you.”

Mannion narrowed the Catholic church property discussion to the diocesan and parish levels, attributing, in certain cases, the cause of financial and mission strain to sex abuse scandals and declining Sunday Mass attendance.

A most glaring example, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, sold “over 600 church properties” since coming out of bankruptcy in 2018, Mannion said.

In May of this year, the New York Times reported that the $121.5 million settlement involving the archdiocese was “among the top five payouts in abuse litigation involving the Catholic church in the United States.”

In New Brunswick, Canada, the bishop there made a different observation, that “it’s unjust to ask 10,000 people to try and [financially] sustain 31 parishes and all the associated properties,” Mannion said.

Jumping in, Nadia Mian, an urban planner from Rutgers University, spoke to the factors impacting church property managers such as zoning bylaw regulations, historic preservation boards and community activists known as NIMBYs.

Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Kevin Rhoades spoke Tuesday afternoon. Bishop Rhoades was notable among church leaders in attendance as he is in charge of making decisions about diocesan properties.

“I really didn’t have a lot of knowledge in this area, nor the data needed for these decisions,” Rhoades said. “Because of my own inclination towards our evangelizing mission, I was often reluctant to close or sell parish buildings and properties and tried to think of creative uses for our facilities.”

Rhoades thanked FIRE for cataloging Fort Wayne-South Bend diocesan property using GIS, or geographic information systems.

“[The] high caliber data that we now have really helps us in our pastoral planning,” he said.

CPI program manager Madeline Johnson explained that GIS is an umbrella term for an ecosystem of tools that use and integrate spatial data, “cartography for the 21st century.”

Johnson said that GIS is used at the diocesan level in inventory and property management.

“Think of it as a series of linked spreadsheets, where you’ve got a [geo-located] shape on the map that defines the property boundary,” she said. “It’s not limited to property management applications. It could be cultural artifacts that are located within the church.”

This mapping application shows all building permits issued by the SJC/City of South Bend Building Department. Courtesy of St Joseph County GIS

The number of columns in that spreadsheet is endless, Johnson said. FIRE and CPI add the most recent property appraisals, church or otherwise, into this map.

Johnson also overlays available demographic information such as school enrollment into the data set to inform property management decisions.

“Another capability that is made possible by having property records in this form is that you’re then able to integrate it with a full ecosystem of GIS-based research and tools that exist out in the world,” she said.

South Bend community member Richard Williams asked Bishop Rhoades during a Q&A session after Johnson’s talk to include data from church properties of other Christian denominations in Notre Dame’s GIS model.

“Because this is the universal church,” Williams said, “I would ask that you also, in particular for South Bend, include the other churches because we may be able to show how we can map and pull a city together that has been fragmented for years.”

Williams explained his reasoning for raising this point, saying “I just wanted to offer that as a challenge to FIRE and to the bishop and to Notre Dame.”

Contact Peter Breen at


Panel discusses theological interpretation, LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church

Monday night in DeBartolo Hall, PrismND hosted a panel titled “Theology and LGBTQ+ Inclusion.”

The panel featured Baumer Hall rector Fr. Robert Lisowski and Saint Mary’s College assistant professor of religious studies and theology Jessica Coblentz. The panel was followed by a question-and-answer session.

Lisowski opened the discussion by talking about his role in Baumer and his work ministering to the LGBTQ+ community. Lisowski said he became Baumer’s rector in 2020 and was ordained a priest in April 2021.

“During these past three years, it’s really been one of the greatest joys of my priesthood, of my ministry, to accompany our LGBTQ students,” Lisowski said. “I use this phrase of accompaniment because it is one dear to Pope Francis, who has made the reality of accompanying a variety of folks but particularly those who find themselves on the margins, to be the hallmark of his pontificate.”

Lisowski said when he thinks about the reality of pastoral accompaniment, he thinks about stories.

“So often in my ministry, I find myself honored as students begin to share their stories, when they let me learn from their various chapters in life and when they share the ups and downs, the joys and the struggles that brought them to this unique point in life,” he said.

Lisowski said he is honored when students share their hopes and dreams for the future. He said, as a priest, this is when he feels he is on “holy ground,” and that he seeks to make Baumer a welcoming and inclusive community.

“One of my favorite philosophers is a 20th-century French and Christian existentialist named Gabriel Marcel, and he often writes and speaks about how we so often are tempted to see everything, even persons, not as mysteries to be embraced, but as problems to be solved,” Lisowski said. “I think that’s one of the key issues in our world, in our church, today.”

The exile, Lisowski said, represents a moving spiritual symbol and biblical narrative for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“We all know the important role that exile played in biblical texts, particularly the Babylonian exile, in which the chosen people find themselves far from home,” he said. “They find themselves questioning their previous understanding of God, find themselves wondering if God had abandoned them, if maybe God’s plan did not apply to them any longer.”

He said this reality — a spiritual narrative of searching for a home and belonging and wondering where God is to be found — is one the LGBTQ+ community knows well.

Lisowski said one way he seeks to minister to LGBTQ+ students is by being intentional in using inclusive language in his liturgies.

“After speaking with some students, I started last year to pray explicitly during my Masses for an end to homophobia and transphobia, to pray for a unity in the body of Christ,” he said.

He said when praying or leading prayers, people should speak of “inviting sisters and brothers and siblings in the Lord Jesus” to gather at one table where everyone has a seat.

Saint Mary’s College assistant professor of religious studies and theology Dr. Jessica Coblentz speaks at the “Theology and LGBTQ+ Inclusion” panel at DeBartolo Hall on Monday, Oct. 24.

After Lisowski concluded with a short prayer, it was Coblentz’ turn to speak.

Coblentz — who teaches courses in feminist and queer theology — said some LGBTQ+ Catholics feel excluded by the church’s teachings on sexuality. She said it is important to remember that church teachings on sexuality and LGBTQ+ people are directly tied to its greater teachings on sex and gender.

“The church holds that sexual activity should be confined to heterosexual marriage,” she explained. “The church also teaches that sex in this context should be unitive and procreative.”

She said these teachings can cause LGBTQ+ Catholics to question how they can “be good in the eyes of God and the church when [their] very nature is inherently disordered.”

Coblentz added that her primary area of research is on Christianity and mental health. She said her research has exposed her to studies linking social and religious messages about LGBTQ+ persons to conditions like depression and suicidal ideation.

“Many LGBTQ+ Christians perceive that they are not really wanted for who they are by the church. They perceive that they do not truly belong in God’s eyes and in the church’s,” Coblentz said. “The exclusion experienced by LGBTQ+ Catholics is, therefore, not just about hurt feelings. It is, for many individuals, a matter of life and death. As such, any Catholic or Catholic institution that strives to be pro-life must contend with the role the church plays in LGBTQ+ exclusion.”

Coblentz said it’s important for Catholics to remember that, when it comes to moral issues, they are not called to unthinking submission to church teachings but rather to form their own opinions based on “rigorous and careful discernment.”

“We are called to study Church teaching, to seek wise spiritual counsel about it and, ultimately, to follow the well-informed conscience that results from this even in difficult moments when one’s conscience leads them to disagree with an official moral teaching,” Coblentz said. “With regard to sexual morality, this process is the responsibility of faithful Catholics and one we should engage in as we grapple with the realities of LGBTQ+ inclusion.”

Coblentz said some theologians debate whether church teaching on sexuality needs to be changed or reinterpreted. Some scholars, particularly those in the subset of queer theology, question whether inclusion should be the end goal of Christians who are concerned about the well-being of LGBTQ+ persons, Coblentz said.

“These theologians call for a more radical rethinking: Instead of inclusion, they call for revolution,” she said. “This revolutionary approach … asks not ‘How do we include LGBTQ+ Catholics in the church, but instead, ‘Can we begin to imagine a church where questions of inclusion are entirely irrelevant because our belonging is simply taken for granted?’”

Contact Claire Reid at