Victoria Baeger thought she had found the perfect home.
It is old enough to have character with an unrestored charm, big enough for her husband and kids to spread out a little bit, situated in a good location and — tricky in a market that was already hot — in her price range.
Arriving for a showing, she didn’t really notice the cross over the front porch of 182 High St. in Greenfield.
Once inside the current resident, a Catholic deacon, casually inquired as to her religious background and welcomed her into Blessed Sacrament Parish.
Soon she would understand why the unusual inquiry.
Baeger learned the house — built as a home for the first Ford dealer in Greenfield before the church acquired it as a rectory — would carry a reminder of its past more permanent than the cross on the porch.
There is a clause in the deed, put there at the insistence of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, that binds Baeger and anyone else who buys the place from ever putting it to a use inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church as determined at the sole discretion of the bishop of Springfield.
The deed restriction does say that the diocese agrees residential uses are compatible with Catholic teaching.
The restriction — or a version of it — is in the deed for every piece of property the Springfield diocese sells, be it a church, a house or even vacant land. The clauses are not consistent — sometimes including a laundry list of approved uses and sometimes not — but Baeger says it made more difficult for her to secure a mortgage and makes her fearful of what might happen if she eventually sells to someone who wants to use the property for commercial or medical uses.
When her original mortgage lender denied the deal and before finding a loan with Florence Bank in Northampton, Baeger said she thought about walking away. But with a red-hot real estate market, prices for homes like she wanted were rising so fast that she feared being priced out of the market.
She went ahead and bought the property. (The purchase price, according to the transaction filed with the Franklin County Registry of Deeds, was $291,000.)
“It was a headache from the get-go, but I really loved the house,” she said. “We were warned not to buy from them if it was a church or a cemetery. But this is a house and it’s not even next to the church. In my mind it became the church by accident.”
She’s not the only one impacted by restrictive clauses the diocese, through its attorney, says are needed to preserve the “spiritual integrity of former church property.”
In Northampton, Ward 3 City Councilor Jim Nash and Planner Wayne Feiden say the clause attached to the sale of St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street is the reason its new owners plan to demolish the century-old landmark of the city’s Polish community instead of repurposing it.
Ironically, Nash says, the language the diocese says is in place to guard a sacred space might seal that space’s fate.
“The language is steering these properties toward demolition,” Nash says
The diocese sold the St. John Cantius property in 2020 for $1.6 million to O’Connell Development Group of Holyoke. That deal followed repeatedly stalled redevelopment plans with a succession of other potential buyers.
O’Connell Development at first said it would build townhomes on most of the property and then redevelop the church building. Now, the company’s told the city it wants to tear down the church building and build townhomes on that space as well.
O’Connell Development Group of Holyoke is due back before the Northampton Central Business Architectural Committee on Tuesday, April 6, with its proposal. The committee has asked for a more detailed proposal.
Fear of the deed restrictions imposed by the diocese, add Nash and Feiden, also keep investors away from the much larger and more prominent St. Mary’s Church property that overlooks Northampton’s downtown and abuts Smith College.
“This discussion that we are having about a church at St. John Cantius is really about two churches,” Nash says. “If we can’t get it right with St. John, how can we get it right with St. Mary’s?”
Nash says he’s heard from community groups that looked into acquiring the church building, but the deed restriction stood in the way. He says he’s also talked with O’Connell Development, which didn’t return calls from The Republican.
It stands to reason, Nash says, that rules in place dictating how the structures can be used will result in fewer developers wanting to invest millions in redeveloping the buildings.
Like St. John Cantius, St. Mary’s Church and its rectory next door have been unused since a parish merger 11 years ago.
Catharine Wells, a professor at Boston College Law School, says restrictions like those used by the Springfield diocese are not universal in the church. She even describes them as rare.
The words in the deed on Baeger’s home and the proposed deed language included in real estate listings for the other properties are “pretty broad,” Wells says.
Such clauses, though, are generally enforceable. State law does limit them to 30 years, and federal courts have struck down clauses that have to do with race, according to Wells.
The law professor returns to the broadness issue of the clauses, saying, “How is the buyer supposed to know what is consistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. It is such a nuisance for the buyer. The problem she would have is in the enforcement.”
Baeger said a former church in Hadley is now a headquarters for V-one Vodka.
In 2012, the Springfield diocese sold MGM Resorts the former St. Joseph’s Church rectory, at 82 Howard St., for $1 million. Two years later, a new bishop joined with other religious leaders and asked voters to reject casino gambling. The rectory no longer exists, demolished to make way for the parking deck entrance to the downtown casino.
Baeger says she doesn’t understand why the restriction is being placed by the diocese on property that has not been used as churches, like houses used for rectories and vacant land.
The problem is, the clause forces buyers to ask for a significant discount in price. The loss of value which results is why Baeger had difficulty securing a mortgage. The lender worried about selling the property should a foreclosure come to occur.
Adding to the confusion, Nash points to another former Catholic Church, Blessed Sacrament at 354 Elm St., the diocese sold to the Seventh-Day Adventists. Wouldn’t being a whole other denomination violate the deed restriction, he suggests.
Nash was concerned enough to contact the Springfield diocese on his own in hopes of brokering a deal that might help avoid possible demolition of St. John Cantius. “Can we loosen the restrictions?” he suggests. “Can we do it for the good of the community.”
Simply leaving it up to the discretion of a bishop is too unspecific, Nash contends. The bishops change over the years, and Catholic thought is more diverse than some give it credit for being, he thinks.
Nash points to Pope Francis’ writings on the environment as an example.
Nash says officials at the diocese said they would be open to talks only with O’Connell’s. But it would walk about amending the restrictions.
“My sense is there is some wriggle room there,” he said.
Nash said he was told, by way of explanation, that there was a famous case in New York City of a church being converted to a nightclub.
Neither the diocese nor O’Connell Development returned calls for comment on Nash’s efforts.
In a statement from diocesan attorney John Egan, provided by spokesman Mark Dupont, the diocese explains its reasoning: “Deed restrictions help preserve the spiritual integrity of the former church property — honoring those whose faith inspired them to be good stewards by helping to acquire, support and maintain these properties for generations,” he said. “All potential buyers are made aware of it.”
“Clearly our success in recent years in marketing numerous surplus church properties across Western Massachusetts, would indicate that the restrictions have not stopped buyers from acquiring former church property and successfully re-developing and repurposing them in a manner consistent with the deed stipulation.”
In previous emailed communications, the Springfield diocese says it has never enforced the deed language.
Those in Northampton, though, question the “success,” pointing to St. Mary’s, which has been on sale for a decade with nary a nibble made public. The current asking price is $2.9 million.
The Catholic Church shrank in the last few decades, with the merging of many parishes leaving it with properties excess to its need.
The real estate broker used by the diocese, Springfield’s Colebrook Realty Services, lists 10 properties up for sale in addition to St. Mary’s in Northampton. They range from the former St. Francis of Assisi mission property — $595,000 — in downtown Springfield and the old St. Joseph’s High School in Pittsfield listed at $2 million.
The high school is currently being used as a temporary shelter during the pandemic, according to Deanna L. Ruffer, community development director for the city of Pittsfield.
Ruffer says her experience in getting Catholic properties redeveloped has not been the same as the concerns Nash and Feiden express about the deed restrictions.
“Based on our observations and discussions with those who have acquired diocese property, these restrictions have not had a significant impact on the sale of diocese property in Pittsfield,” she says. ” What has had an impact, is the unrealistic pricing the diocese has placed on properties.”
Ruffer says the high carrying cost of maintaining buildings can affect both the condition of the properties and the market values. The church and its parishes don’t have the money, Ruffer says, so maintenance slips and properties can become run down, less and less valuable and more and more difficult to redevelop.
Nash points to the current disheveled exterior appearance of St. Mary’s in Northampton as evidence the same is happening there.
In Westfield, community development director Peter J. Miller says he, like Ruffer, keeps hearing that price is the real stumbling block. In Westfield, the former Blessed Sacrament rectory sits at a prominent intersection in the city’s North Side, where Elm and Union streets meet along Routes 10 and 202. (Blessed Sacrament Church once stood next door, but was demolished to make way for the redesigned intersection.)
Built in 1897, the 6,500-square-foot home is a challenge for future development, Miller says. It’s expensive and would be difficult to retrofit for a new purpose. The asking price is $1.5 million.
Miller says he’s asked about that price and the possibility of reducing it. But, he says he’s been told the price was dictated by the debt the parish owes the diocese.
And, while no one has complained to him specifically about the deed restriction, it does further complicate the future for an already complicated property, Miller says.
“Any time that you are limiting use,” he says, “it makes it a little more difficult than it would be if it was unrestricted.”
Baeger, meanwhile, is now doing typical new homeowner tasks like stripping wallpaper as well as straightening out the home’s property tax assessment with the city of Greenfield. The church didn’t challenge any assessments for decades because it was never charged property taxes.
She says she’d like to have the deed restriction removed, if only for the peace of mind.
“In my mind, if you sell something, you don’t control it (any longer),” she says. “I might be upset if the person who buys my house rips out the rose garden, but I can’t stop them.”