The Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental landowner in the world, but with aging assets and demographic shifts, the Church’s expansive real estate portfolio of schools, parishes, convents, hospitals, monasteries and more is often highly underutilized.
This became apparent to David Murphy, a 2014 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, while he was living in San Diego as a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot. Murphy came across an empty convent in the heart of an affluent neighborhood and was curious about how the Catholic church could convert it to meet the needs of the local community. Through his later efforts, he helped transform the convent into housing for young adults.
Murphy, now a seminarian in the Congregation of Holy Cross, is also working with the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate (FIRE) on its church properties initiative. The initiative was created to address the real estate challenges and opportunities that the Catholic Church faces in the U.S. As a visiting scholar with FIRE, he helps parishes understand how their underutilized real estate can be used in innovative ways.
“While some archdioceses are closing parishes, others are expanding. The sheer variability in real estate challenges coupled with a lack of formal business training for many religious leaders means a lot of positive opportunities are left on the table. We want to change that,” said Murphy. “By helping leaders rethink how to use their property, be it reusing a building or restructuring how their assets are held, it can benefit parishioners and the surrounding community, all while fulfilling the mission of the Catholic Church.”
In the last five decades, almost 1,500 Catholic parishes have closed. According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), the pandemic has also caused more than 200 Catholic school closings across the country, further challenging Church leadership with questions of effective property utilization.
As part of FIRE’s church properties initiative, Murphy has created a one-of-a-kind database of Catholic Church real estate. The data are codified with information about the properties and what steps have been taken to make changes or repurpose assets. By collecting these data, researchers are establishing best practices across a wide-ranging list of real estate-related issues. This information is then used as case study examples that can be shared with Church leaders.
“We are using the collective brainpower of Notre Dame’s faculty and students, as well as many of our alumni, to think through the legal, financial, canonical, social and environmental pressure points. We want to get the relevant data, best practices and case studies into the hands of diocesan and parish decision-makers to help them consider the best options for their specific needs,” said Dan Kelly, professor of law and faculty director of FIRE.
To put this work into action, over the 2020-21 winter break Murphy led two teams of Notre Dame students pursuing minors in real estate to assess different types of unused Church properties. The first student team, which included Macartan Commers and Hailey Maglett, partnered with the real estate office of the Archdiocese of Chicago. They analyzed six parishes in the Bronzeville area and spoke with local leaders to determine the needs and each parish’s property portfolio. Then, using the database of case studies, the students provided innovative, data-driven recommendations about how the Church might repurpose the properties in ways that support the parishes, the archdiocese and the needs of the surrounding community.
The second student team, composed of Lauren Vallace and Josef Weber, performed an analysis of closed Catholic schools across the country and how to utilize the closed school buildings. The team collaborated with the Alliance for Catholic Education at Notre Dame and NCEA and found that Catholic school closures disproportionately affected minorities and those living in urban areas. The students wrote a report that provided several options for repurposing school properties so that they can help financially support parishes and existing or new programs.
Additionally, Quo Vadis — a nonprofit co-founded by Murphy and Nathan Poe in 2019, and led by Kevin Angell, class of ’20 — is helping parishes revitalize their unused or underutilized properties. At St. Casimir Catholic Church in South Bend, Quo Vadis helped renovate the former rectory and convent into a five-bedroom residence to serve graduate students and young professionals known as QV fellows. The space opened in January, and Quo Vadis will also open a similar space in the Holy Cross Parish’s empty convent in the summer.
“From collecting this data, we have found so many interesting examples of how different people have created new, sustainable programs with these properties,” said Murphy. “In D.C., a group of nuns set up solar panels in an empty field they owned, and in Pennsylvania, a Notre Dame alum is working to turn an unused church property into a shelter for homeless veterans. Now with FIRE and Quo Vadis, we are able to make a direct impact here in South Bend.”
Murphy is helping Notre Dame’s FIRE become the leading authority on Church real estate. FIRE plans to organize an annual conference where faculty, industry experts and Church leaders can discuss their opportunities and ideas for other underutilized real estate. Additionally, while the current work is focused in the U.S., they plan to expand their efforts to serve the global Catholic Church, other faith traditions and nonprofits.
For more information on Church properties research at Notre Dame, visit https://realestate.nd.edu/research/church-properties/. For more details on Quo Vadis, visit https://www.qvcatholic.com/.
FIRE, which is part of Notre Dame Research, is dedicated to educating and inspiring the next generation of real estate professionals and is focused on studying many aspects of real estate — including core areas like investment and development — as well as fundamental questions about how people invest, build and develop contributes to the common good. FIRE builds upon the University's world-class faculty, global alumni network and distinctive Catholic mission in order to create places of lasting value. To learn more, visit realestate.nd.edu.
Originally published by realestate.nd.edu on April 8.at