US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Is there an opportunity to serve the poor when repurposing church buildings?

By Elizabeth Lefebvre | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

As I was scrolling through some news stories this morning, I saw the headline “Madison Catholic Diocese plans to turn headquarters into rental housing” and I eagerly clicked on the link. I was excited by the possibilities. Was the space being turned into into affordable housing, or merging with a city or diocesan led charitable program to help provide a valuable service to those in need? Sounded awesome!

Reading through the story, however, it turned out that this wasn’t the case. It was just a standard report that the diocese is leasing their headquarter building to a for-profit developer, who will convert the building into about 100 or 150 apartment units. The diocese will still own the property and after the 60-year lease is up it will return to diocesan control.

According to Msgr. James Bartylla, the decision was not made for budgetary reasons. “It strikes a balance between the economics of the situation and preserving the history of the diocese,” Bartylla said, which will allow the diocese to preserve a landmark while “being good stewards of church finances.” 

The developer said the rental housing would be for the general public, not just for Catholics. His vision is that the housing will attract “working people on the West Side who don’t want to live in a generic white box — people who want to live somewhere interesting.”

I'm not criticizing the diocese’s decision – there’s certainly nothing wrong with fiscal responsibility or repurposing a building to be a more efficient use of space. But in light of Pope Francis’ recent comments that the church could do more to prioritize the poor, this could have been a great opportunity to provide a service for those in need. And of course, I wasn't privy to any of the details or decision-making process. Perhaps this option was discussed or conisdered and just ultimately not chosen, or it could have not been a viable solution for a number of reasons. 

As other dioceses encounter similar situations with needing to repurpose church property, perhaps Pope Francis' call will come to mind.