Many New Orleans church properties still in limbo
Many New Orleans church properties still in limbo
August 25, 2012
By BRUCE NOLAN
EW ORLEANS - Nearly seven years after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to hundreds of millions of dollars in the Catholic infrastructure of churches, schools and other properties, the Archdiocese of New Orleans still cares for 10 empty churches, slowly working through conversations with dozens of parishes about what to do with them - and more: what to do with their former rectories, gyms, schools and other properties. A 2008 accounting found that Katrina damaged or destroyed 1,100 of 1,200 archdiocesan buildings, creating $288 million in damage.
After years of rebuilding, Katrina's effects still present the regional church with a complicated portfolio of various kinds of ruined - and, in the case of churches - highly specialized properties to manage.
The storm not only damaged or destroyed church property, it also permanently drove tens of thousands of worshippers out of their communities, especially in eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, making the repair of their former churches and schools superfluous in a newly emptied landscape.
As a result, the archdiocese closed, consolidated or downgraded 44 parishes in two reorganizations in 2006 and 2008. After various appeals, protests and other adjustments, the consolidations drained 27 churches of their worshippers and rendered as surplus dozens of other parish-owned buildings.
Who decides the fate of church properties?
Under church law most of those properties are owned by individual parishes - or, to complicate matters further, the new parish communities that appeared after the mergers.
For instance, the fate of closed Epiphany Church in the 7th Ward, along with its shuttered rectory and convent, is in the hands of the pastor and parish council at nearby Corpus Christi Parish, which merged with Epiphany in the first wave of consolidations. Epiphany's school, gym and hall have been demolished.
The responsibility for rebuilding, demolishing or selling is shared between local parishes and the archdiocese, whose building office offers centralized management and real estate expertise.
"But they are really partners," said Sarah McDonald, the spokeswoman for the archdiocese. "Very often someone interested in a property will come first to the archdiocese's property office. But the archdiocese would take that interest to the pastor and parish council.
"Any decision whether to move forward or investigate - that all takes place at parish level. Decisions are ultimately made at the parish level."
In the case of the former Epiphany church, the archdiocese and Corpus Christi's pastor and parish council are discussing use of the property by an unnamed Catholic ministry, but no decision has been made yet, McDonald said.
An inventory supplied by the archdiocese shows that to date, 10 churches like Epiphany still stand sealed and empty. Each is in New Orleans. Another six have been sold off since the storm, some as vacant lots after demolition; two others are under lease.
Another, St. Lawrence the Martyr in Metairie, has been repurposed into a home for the archdiocese's Hispanic ministries and its spirituality center, the archdiocese said. And in eight cases, churches have been demolished, usually leaving a vacant lot.
Liz LaCombe, the archdiocese's director of building and property management, said the shuttered churches demand attention and represent a continuing cost. LaCombe said the properties still require insurance, and still demand regular inspection for signs of vandalism, leaks, illegal dumping or other issues.
Selling a church is not easy.
Churches are specialized buildings on specialized sites, not easily adapted for a wide range of secular uses, and thus not easy to sell. McDonald said the archdiocese adheres to a hierarchy of priorities in selling or leasing properties, moving them first to other Catholic ministries, second to nonprofits or organizations serving a broad community purpose, and third, selling or leasing to buyers for purely secular uses.
Even then, McDonald said, the archdiocese would build restrictions into those sales or lease agreements. "We'd try to prevent a former church building from becoming neighborhood nuisances, or for any business that we would find morally offensive," she said.
Currently, the archdiocese has eight churches, or their vacant lots, for sale or lease under those guidelines.
Five churches, or their former sites, are included in an unusual property offering the archdiocese is preparing to advertise in mid-September, LaCombe said.
The archdiocese will ask for sealed bids on about three dozen properties. Except for the presence of the church sites, the sale has little to do with the effects of Katrina, LaCombe said.
Rather, LaCombe said the archdiocese has decided to clean out its property portfolio of dozens of miscellaneous properties, many of little value, to rid its books of underperforming property and reduce continuing liability and maintenance costs.
LaCombe said many were gifts of lots donated to the church, sometimes decades ago - or in a few cases on the north shore, property that the church bought for future schools, churches or cemeteries that no longer fit into the church's plans.
Ken Swartzfager, the archdiocese's real estate development manager, said the archdiocese hopes to advertise the properties and solicit closed bids in mid-September, with submission deadline by mid-October.
LaCombe said the process is not an auction; the archdiocese retains rights to refuse or make counteroffers. In any case, it hopes to raise more than $3 million from the sales, LaCombe said.