Archdiocese plans to sell city mansion

Scrollwork on the front gate of the mansion. The sale would follow a trend among Catholic dioceses to scale back.
Scrollwork on the front gate of the mansion. The sale would follow a trend among Catholic dioceses to scale back. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

Chaput is to announce his decision soon.

Posted: January 01, 2012

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has decided to sell the 16-room stone mansion that has been home to Roman Catholic cardinals here for 76 years.

Sources say his decision, which he will announce soon, appears driven in part by his expectation that he will be closing parishes and schools across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the next several years.

A person with knowledge of the announcement said Chaput, who was installed as archbishop in September, did not want parishioners to endure closings while he lived in a baronial home.

The sale would comport with a trend among Catholic dioceses to sell off their bishop's mansions in favor of more modest dwellings. In 1999, when he was Denver's archbishop, Chaput sold his predecessor's villa and moved into the diocesan seminary.

One of the largest private homes in Philadelphia, the stately, three-story dwelling of nearly 13,000 square feet sits on 8.7 landscaped acres that sweep 900 feet from City Avenue to Overbrook Avenue.

Diocesan spokeswoman Donna Farrell would not confirm the report.

Surrounded by a tall, iron fence, the dwelling once known as The Terraces, at 5700 City Ave., has been home to Philadelphia's archbishops since 1935. The property includes an indoor swimming pool, a gardener's cottage, and a six-car garage. During Cardinal John Krol's era in the 1970s and '80s, it also featured a par-3 golf hole and putting green.

Sources say Chaput has not indicated where he might relocate his residence, but they speculate that the cathedral rectory in Center City or St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood are likely.

Chaput, a friar of the Capuchin order who lives by a vow of poverty, has declined to say if he might sell the City Avenue mansion.

"It's been the residence of the bishop for a long time," he said in August. ". . . It belongs to the church - not me."

Among its distinguished visitors have been Pope John Paul II, in 1979, and Cardinal Eugene Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, in 1936.

It is entered through a gate on Cardinal Avenue - the former 57th Street - just south of St. Joseph's University. Its only contiguous neighbor is a convent of cloistered nuns.

Karl Volk, a member of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Media who was parking his car on Cardinal Avenue last week, said he was ambivalent about selling the estate.

"In some ways it's excessive," Volk, 40, said as he glanced through the iron fence to the mansion's grand carriage entrance. "But it's been here for years."

The City of Philadelphia does not list an assessed valued for the property because religious entities are not obliged to pay real estate taxes on most of their holdings.

Damon Michels, an agent with the Prudential, Fox & Roach realty company who represents several nearby homes, said the property's size and location would price it "in the millions," but buyers who would keep it intact might be few. "It's a unique property for a unique buyer," Michels said.

The site has served as the official residence of Philadelphia's Roman Catholic archbishops since Cardinal Dennis Dougherty acquired it in 1935 for $115,000 from the estate of a Richard J. Seltzer, described at the time as a "well-known realtor."

The son of a Schuylkill County coal miner, Dougherty "lived like a Renaissance prince" during his 33-year reign, according to historian Jay P. Dolan. In 1927, he vacated the cathedral rectory on Race Street for a 25-room behemoth "rich in architectural beauty" at 5400 City Avenue donated to the church by an oil tycoon.

Although famously imperious, Dougherty's taste in episcopal dwelling was hardly unique in his day. As American Catholics saw their numbers and political influence soar in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many dioceses acquired large homes for their bishops as symbols of their newfound clout.

But de-acquisition of these sometimes ostentatious and controversial palaces has been the trend in recent years.

In 2004, the Archdiocese of Boston sold its cardinal's mansion and 44 surrounding acres to Boston College for $99 million to help pay claims to victims of clergy sex abuse.

And as Detroit spiraled deeper into crime and poverty late in the last century, it became increasingly embarrassing to the Catholic community that its cardinal retired each night to the city's largest home.

In 1989 the archdiocese sold the 40,000-square-foot giant to Detroit Pistons star John Salley.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago - a religious-order priest who, like Chaput, took a vow of poverty - seemed similarly moved a decade ago.

In 2002, he floated the idea of selling the vast brick cardinal's residence known as the House of 19 Chimneys, said to be worth as much as $20 million. But the plan faltered when preservationist groups rallied to save what they called an "architectural gem."

The decision to keep the mansion proved awkward for George, who had already gone on record as saying the place seemed an extravagance.

"How can I call on my priests to display humility in their lives," he reportedly asked colleagues, "if I'm living in a mansion like that?"


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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