- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2004

BOSTON - When St. Peter and Paul’s Church was sold to a developer, there was a lot of resistance in South Boston. The beloved church was closing, and it was being turned into something that was anathema to the working-class neighborhood: luxury condominiums.

As the Boston Archdiocese prepares to put up 60 churches for sale, developers and real estate brokers predict the properties will be scooped up and converted into condos because the market is hot for trendy, distinctive real estate.

“Huge, huge, huge, huge, huge,” said Peter LaBranche, a real estate agent in Newton, where two churches are to be closed. “They’ll sell in a heartbeat, overnight, in 10 minutes.”

Eric Reenstierna, an appraiser who specializes in church properties, said converting them into living space is often difficult and expensive because of the desire to preserve unusual architectural details while creating extra floors within the often cavernous buildings.

“The big hall with high ceilings can have its uses, but the churches are designed for one use and that’s religious, so they aren’t an easy proposition in terms of converting them for residential use,” Mr. Reenstierna said. “They are expensive and there is a lack of community acceptance, there’s a kind of aversion to living in a building that was once a church.”

But that aversion isn’t overwhelming, and the draw of stained glass, stonework and moldings can translate into pricey apartments, Mr. Reenstierna said.

“Every one of these churches will have a market in terms of some residential developer because the demand is just so strong,” he said.

Archbishop Sean O’Malley announced the closures last month in the midst of a financial crisis caused in part by settlements in the clergy sex abuse crisis.

He said declining Mass attendance, a shortage of priests and the inability of the archdiocese to support struggling parishes — many with older buildings in desperate need of repairs — added to the crisis.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said there will be open bidding for the properties, which are scattered from Rockport to Plymouth, but the archdiocese will try to find buyers who plan to convert the churches to uses consistent with the church’s mission.

“It’s not always accepting the highest offer,” the Rev. Coyne said.

“Church law very clearly spells out that when transferring or selling church property to someone else, the church’s social mission must be taken into account … so that it furthers the work of charity within society,” he said. “We want to stay within the mission of the church.”

At St. Peter and Paul, the one- to three-bedroom condos are priced from $300,000 for the smallest one-bedroom unit to $1.2 million for a 2,400-square-foot penthouse with cathedral ceilings and the bell tower of the 1840s church.

A father-and-son development team, James and Bernard McFarland, converted the rectory and the church into condos in an area that had little housing.

All eight units in the rectory sold last year, and 28 of the 36 units in the church have sold since February, when active marketing started.

The developers kept the outside of the buildings virtually intact, leaving the granite exterior on the church and the red brick on the rectory.

Inside, they had to build five floors and add windows. They kept the church’s grand wooden arches, stained-glass windows and ornate trestles, but added stainless-steel appliances, whirlpool baths, skylights and granite countertops.

Bernard McFarland said the project was intimidating at first.

“Being brought up Catholic, it was a bit strange to come into a church and tear it apart,” he said. “But it’s a de-sanctified church, so you have to keep telling yourself that when you’re doing construction.”

Some South Boston residents were not thrilled with the church’s conversion.

Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, whose parents were parishioners of St. Peter and Paul, said many people had hoped the church would be used for low-income housing rather than pricey condos. Eight of the 44 units were set aside as affordable.

“People really feel hurt and a tremendous loss of community when they see their church close and then they see luxury condominiums being built on those locations, with Mercedes automobiles parked outside,” Mr. Flynn said.

“It takes a long time for people to not think of this as a sacred religious site,” Mr. Flynn said.

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