Financially struggling Archdiocese to sell Shore home

Villa St. Joseph by the Sea in Ventnor is used as a vacation retreat for retired priests. Faced with a $17 million deficit, the archdiocese is beginning to cut costs and sell assets.
Villa St. Joseph by the Sea in Ventnor is used as a vacation retreat for retired priests. Faced with a $17 million deficit, the archdiocese is beginning to cut costs and sell assets. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 14, 2012

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia will try to unload its massive vacation home on the Ventnor, N.J., beachfront, assessed at $6.2 million, at a Sept. 15 auction, church and real estate officials said Monday.

"They really want to get it sold," said Bob Dann of Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co., who is handling the listing of the 19-room Villa St. Joseph by the Sea.

The house, on a block-long property that runs 175 feet along the Boardwalk from Princeton to Portland Avenues, was used until this summer as a getaway for retired priests and high-ranking archdiocese officials.

The archdiocese's urgent need to address its $17 million deficit and mounting legal bills, including $11 million from the latest grand jury investigation into clergy sex-abuse and criminal prosecution of Msgr. William J. Lynn, was underscored Monday by the announcement that two other church properties also would be put up for sale.

They are the Holy Family Center, a former convent in Center City that is part of the archdiocese's downtown headquarters, and the Mary Immaculate Center in Northampton, Pa., a seminary turned retreat house purchased for $4 million in 1998 under Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua.

The archdiocese previously said it hoped to sell the archbishop's residence, in the city's Wynnefield section, but through a private sale. It has not decided how the Center City and Northampton properties will be sold.

"The decision to sell these properties was not made lightly, but rather after prayer and careful consideration," Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in a statement Monday.

"We just can't afford to maintain and hold assets like Villa St. Joseph by the Sea and my residence. Holding onto these properties at this time would be inconsistent with the mission of our church."

The villa, which the archdiocese said in June that it would sell, includes an elevator and walled-in backyard, and is being auctioned fully furnished. It already has attracted inquiries from a builder and a bed-and-breakfast owner, Dann said. The site is zoned residential, for up to six lots.

An open house will be held there Sunday between noon and 2 p.m., and again Aug. 26 and Sept. 1 and 9, according to the Spann agency.

"Auctions are a good way to find market value. I'm sure somebody will get a good deal, and the church will accomplish its goals," Dann said.

The sale will not be an absolute auction, in which the property is sold to the highest bidder regardless of price, Dann said. But no minimum bid has been set.

The archdiocese, which last year paid $115,000 in property taxes on the villa, is highly motivated to sell, he said. It did not want to wait for a sale through a listing.

"Vacation homes in Shore communities are taking two years to sell in some cases, and the archdiocese wants to sell this property now," Max Spann, the firm's president, said in a statement. "With unique properties like this, it is often difficult to determine a market value. Our auction will bring together motivated potential buyers."

Mary Lou Ferry, a real estate agent in Ventnor, said an auction was not unusual for a high-end property and predicted the site would sell for about $5.5 million.

The villa was closed abruptly on June 30 and a season's worth of bookings by retired priests was canceled.

Neighbors, and even some church officials, had said that a sale of the mansion - the object of criticism in the 1990s, when Bevilacqua was closing parishes in Philadelphia - was prohibited by a deed restriction. But church officials concluded that no legal obstacle existed, Dann said.

The house was sold to the church by Hannah Hogan, a wealthy businesswoman, in 1963. Although church officials always said the home was donated or sold for a nominal figure, tax stamps on the deed filed in Atlantic County Court reflect a $100,000 sale, according to the clerk's office.

The Holy Family Center, at 18th and Vine Streets, is about 20,000 square feet, and its sale will include an adjacent parking lot. The center serves as office space for Catholic Social Services agencies. No reduction in workforce will result, the archdiocese said. The property is being marketed by HFF L.P.

Northampton's Mary Immaculate Center was built as a seminary by the Congregation of Missions of St. Vincent de Paul in 1939. From 1991 to 2005 it served as the location for the Spirituality Year Program for seminarians studying at St. Charles Borromeo in Wynnewood. After the program ended in 2005, the 452-acre property served as a retreat center. It has been underutilized in recent years, according to the archdiocese, and is being marketed by Binswanger.

In a newsletter to church members this spring, Chaput said the archdiocese had spent $11 million on legal fees and other costs related to the latest grand jury investigation into clergy sex-abuse and criminal prosecution of Lynn, the former aide to Bevilacqua. Nearly a dozen lawsuits from alleged abuse victims are pending against the archdiocese, and more are expected. All seek damages.

Further internal approvals are required - including from Rome - and will be obtained before the closing of any sale, Chaput said Monday.

The 1905 mansion contains 11 bedrooms, each with a private bathroom; two dining rooms; a commercial kitchen; a grand foyer with parlor; and "numerous covered porches and decks with panoramic views of the ocean, beach and Boardwalk," according to the agency. Its furniture will be auctioned separately if necessary, Dann said.

"The estate is stunning," Spann said. "We are confident we can find a new owner that will appreciate it."


For more information on the Ventnor mansion and the auction, go to MaxSpann.com.

Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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