- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

PORTAGE, Pa. (AP) - Facing a growing number of vacant, neglected structures, Portage Borough Council has taken an unusual approach for encouraging reuse of several former church properties.

Council voted last week to explore revoking tax-exempt status for the former Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish church buildings and a former church school.

Council President Sharon McCarthy said she came up with the idea after hearing community frustration about the vacant buildings.

“We are not after this for getting the tax money,” McCarthy said. “The purpose is: If they continue to deteriorate, who does it come back on?

“The elected officials and the taxpayers’ money.”

McCarthy brought the suggestion to council in February and asked borough Solicitor Michael Emerick to look into property-tax exemption for churches. At this month’s meeting, Emerick read part of the law, saying it applies to “actual places of worship.”

Since the churches are no longer used by the parish, they may not qualify for real estate tax exemption, he said.

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was merged with the former St. Joseph Church in 2015, combining three former active congregations into one, renamed the Holy Family Parish.

Mass is now held in the former St. Joseph building on Caldwell Avenue.

Both Sacred Heart parish church buildings remain vacant and are listed for sale, along with the former school.

They include the former Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church on Hammers Street and the former Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on Mountain Avenue at Orchard Street. The two were merged in 1999 to create the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Parish.

‘A lot of interest’

The original Sacred Heart church properties on Mountain Avenue include an attached rectory, a former school and two-car garage.

Deeds show the property is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, in trust for the local congregations. Holy Family continues to pay for utilities and maintenance on the vacant buildings, McCarthy said.

Council’s action to tax the properties may be intended to push the diocese to sell the buildings.

Johnstown Century 21 All Services Inc. real estate agent Scott Morris said he has a sales agreement for the Mountain Avenue properties, but is waiting for the diocese. Morris also is trying to sell the Assumption building.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from a lot of different people,” Morris said. “We are just waiting for the diocese. They have some things they need to work out.”

If the sale goes through, Sacred Heart will become the new home for Johns-town’s Holy Cross Parish of the Polish National Catholic Church, 534 Woodland Ave., the Rev. Paul Zomerfeld said.

“Our building here in Moxham is almost 100 years old,” Zomerfeld said. “It needs a lot of repairs. With all the shootings, I don’t want to live here no more because it has become too dangerous.”

‘A canonical process’

None of the 10 active members lives in Johnstown, but some live in the Portage and Lilly areas, he said, adding that the members see the move as an opportunity to grow.

Zomerfeld said the church has put a deposit on the Sacred Heart Property and the sale was accepted by the Holy Family congregation. He has contacted the diocese numerous times about the delay, but received no answers.

Although he said he does not know why the sale has not been finalized, he said the relationship with Altoona has a history of tension. When Johnstown catholic churches were being closed, Zomerfeld said parishioners were discouraged from moving to the Polish National Catholic Church.

Diocese spokesman Tony DeGol said the delay is necessary.

“The diocese is by no means holding up the sale of the properties,” DeGol said in an email. “But there are many factors involved in matters such as this, including a canonical process that all dioceses must follow before selling property.

“Both the Diocesan College of Consulters and Finance Council must approve potential sales, and those steps are currently being undertaken with regard to the Holy Family properties.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2mWEmAe

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Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, https://www.tribune-democrat.com

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