March 10, 2010

Houses of worship close as house of bishop eats up cash

— The more the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland shutters its churches and puts them on the real estate market, the larger the question looms: Should Maine's bishop still be living in a million-dollar mansion?

It's on Portland's tony Western Promenade. According to city tax records, the 6,970-square-foot, three-story ''mansion'' has six bedrooms, 4½ baths, an 840-square-foot garage and an assessed value of $1,126,000.

In short, pretty nice digs by anyone's standards. Too nice, according to at least one perennial thorn in the side of Bishop Richard Malone.

''It's not about Richard Malone,'' said Paul Kendrick, a Roman Catholic who for years has publicly decried the church's handling of the sexual abuse of children by priests. ''It's about 'What kind of church is this?'''

Kendrick fired off a mass-distribution e-mail this week after hearing that five churches -- Notre Dame de Lourdes Church in Saco, St. Mary of the Assumption and St. Andre churches in Biddeford, and St. Joseph and St. Patrick churches in Lewiston -- will close this year and next because of shrinking congregations, growing costs to maintain the buildings and the need to protect religious programs and services from ever-increasing parish deficits.

''Bishop Malone wants Maine's Catholics to cut costs, spend less and do without,'' observed Kendrick. ''Everyone, that is, but him.''

Tough words, to be sure, from a man who last year was threatened with official church sanctions (not to mention police arrest) if he didn't steer clear of Malone.

Still, it's not the first time in recent years that the opulence of a bishop's residence has raised eyebrows -- and in a few cases, led to ''For Sale'' signs.

Six years ago, as the Archdiocese of Boston struggled to pay for legal claims by those sexually abused by priests, Cardinal Sean O'Malley sold the palatial cardinal's residence in Brighton, Mass., and moved into the rectory of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End. The move, which caught many by surprise, won O'Malley widespread praise, even from the archdiocese's harshest critics.

Last fall, Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh put his residence up for sale and moved into a seminary to be closer to those studying to be priests. The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, said this week that the property, valued last fall at $1.5 million, is now under contract and will likely be sold within the next few weeks.

Zubik told the media last fall that his decision reflects ''more pressing concerns'' facing the diocese as it struggles to make ends meet and at the same time fulfill its basic missions, including ''reaching out to the poor.''

''People think it's good that he is moving in with the seminarians,'' said Lengwin. ''And that it's good for the church.''

Then there's the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, where Bishop George Murry put his suburban residence on the market for $339,000 three months ago and moved into a smaller home in the city. Murry also announced that many furnishings from the stately, five-bedroom home would be donated to Catholic Charities.

Diocese of Youngstown Chancellor Nancy Yuhasz said Thursday that although the property has not yet been sold, Murry's decision has been ''received very well by the parishioners and the clergy.''

The old residence ''is so large and such an expense,'' Yuhasz said. ''It shows we're trying to be good stewards of our resources.''

Back here in Portland, diocesan spokeswoman Sue Bernard said it would be a mistake to assume a connection between what it costs to run the diocese -- including, for example, the $19,620 annual property-tax bill for the bishop's residence -- and the ongoing efforts to bring various parishes' property more in line with their current needs.

(The diocese's operations are funded from a variety of sources, Bernard said, including a 12 percent levy on each parish's total revenue and a bishop's fundraising appeal made directly each year to Maine's estimated 200,000 Roman Catholics.)

Malone's charge to the parishes, Bernard noted, has been to determine ''What do you need? Take a look at what you need and see if there's an excess there.''

But might the same challenge be put to the bishop? Considering that he lives alone, does he truly need six bedrooms, four bathrooms, a three-car garage ?

Bernard noted that the mansion, which has served as the bishop's residence since Bishop Joseph McCarthy purchased it for the diocese back in 1939, is used to entertain visitors to the diocese and for other social functions.

''He lives there by himself,'' she said, ''but he isn't the only one who uses it.''

What's more, Bernard said, while it's in a ''lovely neighborhood,'' the interior could use some work. ''There's wallpaper coming off in some places, peeling paint.''

So why not sell it and move into the rectory at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where Maine's bishops lived before 1939?

In addition to generating, say, a million dollars from a sale and saving another $25,000 or so in annual operating expenses, might not such a downsizing send a powerful message to Maine's Roman Catholics about living within one's needs in these austere times?

''I'm sure there are people who would agree,'' Bernard conceded.

Starting, of course, with Kendrick, who titled his latest missive: ''Do Catholics in Biddeford, Saco and Lewiston know about this?''

''We're talking about the parishioners' money,'' Kendrick said, ''and there's too much else to do with it.''

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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