Church Properties

Church properties represent substantial assets

As the largest non-governmental landowner in the world, the Catholic Church has amassed a diverse and global portfolio of parishes, schools, monasteries, cemeteries, hospitals, care facilities, and more—combining to an estimated 177 million acres.

Mc 10Yet, as the world's largest social services provider, the Church is not organized to answer complex real estate questions. Its decentralized structure has left many Church property decision-makers to navigate the legal, financial, architectural, and canonical challenges alone.

Launched in June 2021, the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate’s Church Properties Initiative (CPI) was created to help the Church think through these real estate concerns.

Students and top academic researchers from every college at Notre Dame aid the CPI in engaging with top Church leadership and tapping into innovative solutions from industry practitioners to create actionable change that turns the Church’s land into a powerful force for good. 

Through a variety of research and educational programs, the CPI is working to help scholars, policymakers, and religious officials to understand the impact of their property decisions on local dioceses and surrounding communities.

Featured Initiatives

  • Addressing a Global Need: Educating Through Webinars
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    At the invitation of the Global Institute of Church Management, FIRE has developed five webinars on Church property issues for a global audience and is publicly available for all interested. These webinars feature leading academic and industry experts as well as Notre Dame faculty, staff, and alum exploring the following topics: 

    • Innovation and Church Property
    • The Role of the Rural Church
    • Urban Church Property: Challenges and Opportunities (November 11, 2021. Register here)
    • Church Property and Legal Legacies (December 2021. Registration forthcoming)
    • Innovative Real Estate Financing (January 2021. Registration forthcoming)
  • Convening the first Church Properties Conference

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    FIRE is leading a global conference at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome called “Real Estate and the New Evangelization: Turning Liabilities into Assets” in spring 2022.

    The event will bring together Church leaders, academic experts, and industry leaders from architecture, finance, law, and real estate to explore how to leverage real assets into places of encounter in the 21st century. 

  • Educating the Hearts and the Minds of Notre Dame Undergraduates

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    Launching in Spring 2022, “Church Real Estate: Land and The Lord” focuses on the intersection of the Catholic Church and real estate. Notre Dame students will explore the theological and philosophical underpinnings of how the Church views property. Enrolled students will also be introduced to basic real estate concepts including finance, law, architecture, engineering, urban planning, and art design. They will critically examine how the Church can and should be using the Church’s real assets. 

    The class is open to all undergraduate majors and has been approved as a Catholicism and the Disciplines (CAD) course. 

  • Forming the Next Generation of Catholics

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    In 2021, FIRE inaugurated the first cohort of Church Property Fellows with over 60 undergraduates, graduate students, and seminarians with backgrounds in 20 majors spanning every college at Notre Dame. Fellows will participate in research, workshops, conferences, and speaker series on church properties throughout the year. The fellowship also provides unique opportunities for students to meet and engage with Church, academia, and industry leaders.

    To become a CPI Fellow, please submit this Google form.

  • Solving Real Estate Pressure Points Utilizing GIS Data & Industry Best Practices

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    Through a pilot program with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, FIRE students are working with local Church pastors, school principals, and religious leaders to help assess and solve real estate pressure points utilizing GIS data and industry best practices. This new program aims to help the Church put its land to the highest and best spiritual use.

  • Supporting Church Property Innovation

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    FIRE affiliates Martin Ford (ND IDEA Center ‘20), founder of San Francisco-based Harbor, and Kevin Angell (ND ‘20), president of Chicago-based QuoVadis, are both reusing empty convents and rectories to house young Catholic adults through their non-profits. With the support of FIRE, these non-profits received necessary resources and networks to help their ventures build fiscal, social, and spiritual capital out of assets the Church was struggling to use. Read more about the partnership here

    Both non-profits were finalists in the OSV Innovation Challenge and are finding creative ways to address Church property issues from coast to coast.

Featured Research

  • Analyzing "Religious Covenants" on Church Property
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    Garnett and Reidy analyze an important issue the Church and other religious organizations face when alienating real estate in their new working paper on "Religious Covenants":

    Abstract

    When religious institutions alienate property, they often include religiously motivated deed restrictions that bind future owners, sometimes in perpetuity.  These “religious covenants” serve different purposes and advance different goals.  Some prohibit land uses that the alienating faith community considers illicit; others seek to ensure continuity of faith commitments; still others signal public disaffiliation with the new owners and their successors.  Some religious covenants are required by theological mandates, but many are not.  This paper examines the phenomenon of religious covenants as both a private law and public law problem.  We conclude that most, but not all, of them likely are enforceable, and, furthermore, that traditional private law rules governing covenant enforcement represent a bigger impediment to their enforcement than public law principles. 

    Fr. Reidy, CSC, recently published another piece, "Condemning Worship: Religious Liberty Protections and Church Takings," in the Yale Law Journal.

  • Designing Churches of Great Beauty

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    Stroik is a well-known scholar and architect of Ecclesiastical architecture. His portfolio includes churches and church renovations across the United States. Stroik’s works include Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel in California, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin, the Jesuit Chapel of the Holy Cross in Florida, and the Cathedral of St. Joseph in South Dakota. He has done masterplanning for College, Parish and Monastic campuses.

    His scholarship includes The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence and the Eternal. In 1998, Stroik founded the Institute for Sacred Architecture and edits its journal, Sacred Architecture.

  • Measuring the Resiliency of Catholic Churches in Italy

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    Walsh, along with Elizabeth Kerr (Engineering), received a grant from the Global Gateway Faculty Research Awards program, as well as the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate, for their work on risk assessment of churches in Italy entitled, “Seismic resilience of Catholic Churches in Italy incorporating the development of an operational framework for assessment, case study non-destructive testing, and numerical modeling.” 

    Through these grants, both undergraduate students and faculty have the opportunity to help assess the resiliency and structural soundness of churches that the Catholic Church would not otherwise have the resources or expertise to evaluate. 

    This research is taking place at the Rome Global Gateway.

     

  • Understanding the Effects of Catholic School Closures on Urban Neighborhoods

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    Garnett published Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools' Importance in Urban America (University of Chicago Press) (with Margaret F. Brinig), an important book on the effects of Catholic School closures on urban neighborhoods in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

    Abstract

    In the past two decades in the United States, more than 1,600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools have closed, and more than 4,500 charter schools―public schools that are often privately operated and freed from certain regulations―have opened, many in urban areas. With a particular emphasis on Catholic school closures, Lost Classroom, Lost Community examines the implications of these dramatic shifts in the urban educational landscape. 

    More than just educational institutions, Catholic schools promote the development of social capital―the social networks and mutual trust that form the foundation of safe and cohesive communities. Drawing on data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods and crime reports collected at the police beat or census tract level in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett demonstrate that the loss of Catholic schools triggers disorder, crime, and an overall decline in community cohesiveness, and suggest that new charter schools fail to fill the gaps left behind.

    This book shows that the closing of Catholic schools harms the very communities they were created to bring together and serve, and it will have vital implications for both education and policing policy debates. 

Globally Reimagining Church Properties

As churches and dioceses work to address their real estate challenges, many feel isolated, without resources, and limited in options. Yet, around the world, there are examples of innovation and imagination that provide sustainable solutions. Presently, these are done at the hyper-local level and often these ideas, best practices, and resources cannot inform the broader Catholic imagination. 

The CPI is working to research, connect with, and index these best practices to help the global Church learn from local examples that address pressing the issues of job creation, community building, serving those with disabilities, climate change, and more.

  • Affordable Housing

    The Church is one of the largest providers of senior, affordable, temporary, and emergency housing. Catholic Charities develops underutilized Church property into new senior care facilities, FIRE affiliate QuoVadis turns old convents and rectories into affordable young adult Catholic housing, and Catholic organizations in St Louis are using tiny homes built by high school students to address homelessness. The CPI is researching how these initiatives can be paired up with sophisticated financing and religious liberty resources to ensure they can operate with even more impact.

  • Catholic Cafes

    Some parishes have realized that coffee and donuts after mass isn’t the only way to brew community. Holy Grounds, a parish-based coffee shop in Santa Monica, employs formerly incarcerated people looking to learn a new skill, while Brother Andre Cafe, a Pittsburgh coffee shop opened in an underutilized parish property and is run by those with disabilities. Similarly in Rome, the Community of Sant’Egidio used an empty Church property to open Trattoria del gli Amici, a restaurant staffed by those with disabilities in the community. The success in Rome has sparked other initiatives, including the transformation of an old parish property into an art gallery and studio for the disabled. The CPI is working to learn the nuances of business, law, real estate, and architecture to ensure that these and other organizations can address local community needs while also building up social and spiritual capital.

  • Community Renewal

    St Joseph’s Home for the Aging, a Singapore nursing home that combines a senior care facility with a children’s daycare, which allows for intergenerational interaction and learning. This creative use of Church property in a landlocked city has reimagined the use of space to create immense social and spiritual capital for the community. In another rural region of France, monastic communities tending the papal vineyards have created a social enterprise model that supports local winemakers and farmers. The CPI is researching the role of the Church as a social enterprise that leverages the Church’s property through research in Ecuador, the United States, Italy, across Africa, and in the Philippines.

  • Environmental Stewardship

    Catholic Energies is a green energies company that leverages the Church’s vast landholdings to develop sustainable solar farms that create green energy and revenue streams for the Church. At a local level, the St Kateri Conservation Center promotes planting native plants at local parishes, even inner city urban parishes with no green space to help promote healthy local wildlife. The CPI is working to ensure that the Church is leading by example by stewarding the earth and the land in innovative ways.

  • Monastic Renewal

    French nuns have returned to the rural 12th century Boulaur Abbey and have begun a farm to support themselves, inviting a local agricultural school into the abbey lands and creating the community's first grocery store. In Italy, Benedictine monks have returned to a 16th-century monastery in Norcia, the hometown of St Benedict. The monks brew beer to help support themselves. Both communities are not only renovating the ancient structures, but also at the same time partnering with the local community to put the Church at the center of the cultural, economic, and spiritual fabric of the region. The CPI is helping to connect these projects with global networks of other growing monastic communities as well as real estate practitioners, and academic experts who work on Church property issues.

Get Involved

The CPI welcomes engagement from church officials, faculty, students, industry, and alumni who are interested in partnering. To learn more about the Institute's research and educational programs in Church properties, please contact David Murphy, Program Director, Church Properties Initiative.

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