Holy Land

What’s the value of all that archdiocese real estate? Heaven only knows.

Twenty-six sculptured angels stand along the roofline of St. Mary of the Angels Church, a prime vantage for watching land values rise heavenward in Bucktown. When the angels took their place atop the new church in 1920, they gazed over a neighborhood that was working-class Polish. The area fell into a long decline, however, and by 1988, St. Mary of the Angels was closed and on the demolition list of the Archdiocese of Chicago. But Bucktown has revived in the past two decades, to the point where the old workers’ cottages now routinely come down to be replaced by new houses priced over $1 million.

Lavishly restored in the 1990s, St. Mary of the Angels, at Hermitage Avenue and Cortland Street, now rises above some of the city’s most desirable real estate. Jan Smith, owner of the nearby JA Smith + Associates Residential Brokerage, estimates that the land under the church alone would be worth $44 million to a developer of single-family homes. But that says nothing of the value of the church’s regal red brick and limestone building and its baroque cruciform interior, a place that is revered by its parishioners and others as the Polish basilica in Chicago.

St. Mary of the Angels is just one of 372 parish churches in the archdiocese, many of them adding immeasurably to the visual landscape of the city and suburbs. Putting a price tag on the land that lies beneath each would be pretty simple, but reckoning the value of any particular church would be impossible-the personal and spiritual attachments are too rich. “The value comes as a place of worship. It doesn’t come from being a piece of land,” says Tom Brennan, the director of finance for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Along with its parishes and schools, the archdiocese owns cemeteries and a seminary, the cardinal’s mansion, the Misericordia Home for the disabled, Catholic Charities’ many facilities, a gas station, and assorted land it expects to convert for other use in the future-for example, two golf courses (Pine Meadow in Mundelein and Fresh Meadow in Hillside), both intended as cemetery land. The list of archdiocese properties in Cook County runs 71 pages long; in Lake County it’s another 13 pages.

How much is it all worth? Only heaven knows. Because the archdiocese is tax exempt, taxing agencies do not assess its holdings. (Properties such as the golf courses that are not used for religious purposes are taxed conventionally; in 2005, the tax bills on those parcels totaled $467,958, according to Maureen O’Brien, real-estate manager for the archdiocese.)

Archdiocese officials would not estimate how many acres and buildings the portfolio contains, or how much it is worth. “We don’t look at land the way most landowners do, with a five- or ten-year perspective,” O’Brien says. “We look in terms of centuries.”

In its year-end statement for 2004, the archdiocese puts the value of all its land, buildings, and equipment at $1.126 billion. But that figure is based largely on 1980 values (drawn from replacement and fair-market-value estimates), a benchmark date used by not-for-profits so they can calculate depreciation. As a real-world measure of the value of property 25 years on, it’s practically meaningless. “Our land is all over the map, so we have probably seen rising and falling values,” O’Brien says.

The disadvantage of not having regular valuations was evident in at least one sale of church property. In the mid-1980s, when the real estate of a defunct Bucktown parish, Annunciation, was being sold off, the developer Ronald Gan paid $50,000 for a decrepit 9,000-square-foot parish residence-though he had estimated it was worth up to five times that amount. Two years later, he sold the building, unimproved, for $285,000. Today, Gan suggests, archdiocese officials surely have a better knowledge of their portfolio’s value: “Everybody and their grandmother knows how much houses are worth now,” he says. “I’m sure the archdiocese is paying attention, too.”

The archdiocese bought the bulk of its portfolio between 1880 and 1939, during the terms of Archbishops Patrick Feehan and James Edward Quigley and Cardinal George Mundelein, O’Brien says. And while she points out “we are not land speculators,” Feehan, at least, was a canny trader. In 1880, he erected the mansion now known as the cardinal’s residence, at State Parkway and North Avenue, on what was then lakefront land. Some 50 years later, when the city built the earliest version of Lake Shore Drive and created fill land between the residence and the water, Feehan sued to get the riparian rights. “He won,” O’Brien says. “And then he sold off those new parcels and used the money to build new churches and schools.”

In 2002, Cardinal Francis George floated a similar idea, proposing to sell the mansion to high-rise developers and use the proceeds-then estimated by one expert at $10 million to $20 million-to create a fund to support Catholic schools. O’Brien says the plan faltered in part because of the high-rise market slump in the aftermath of September 11th. What’s more, media coverage of the proposal brought a flood of calls and letters opposing a sale. “And they were not all from Catholics,” she says. “We heard from a lot of other people who thought [the building] was an important piece of Chicago history.”

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