From a motherhouse to City Hall

The Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in O’Fallon, Missouri, faced an all-too-familiar challenge for religious communities in the early 1990s. While the number of sisters had shrunk dramatically from decades past, the community still maintained an enormous 200,000-square-foot motherhouse with 12 buildings resting on 42 acres of property at St. Mary’s Institute.

While the motherhouse had played an important historic role in the ministry of the Catholic Church in the region, it was much more than the sisters currently needed. Faced with looming increases in health care costs to care for aging sisters, it made sense to sell or redevelop the property.

In a presentation during a first-ever workshop on property planning for religious institutes, held at the Maritime Institute Conference Center in Linthicum Nov. 28-30, Sister Fran Raia, C.P.P.S. and Gerard Hempstead explained to 172 participants from across the country how the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood made the best of their assets and used some creativity in the planning process.

In the short-term, the sisters leased some of the buildings to bring in revenue while they researched their options. Then, just as they were thinking of selling their property, city leaders approached them about buying part of the motherhouse to transform it into the new City Hall for O’Fallon. The sisters did just that, but it wasn’t easy.

“One of the buildings they bought was the novitiate,” said Sister Fran. “Memories and emotional ties among the sisters were high and resistance was even higher.”

But Sister Fran said it was critical for the sisters to move on the opportunity when it presented itself.
“It’s been very much to our advantage,” she said.

The sisters had hoped the city would purchase the remaining buildings and property over the following three decades, but that option died when the city ran into financial problems. The sisters had to pursue a new strategy.

“At first, we thought – let’s sell,” remembered Sister Fran. “But then we did our research and found the money we would have received would not be enough to carry us into the future.”

Instead, the sisters decided to move into a joint venture with a developer to provide affordable senior housing. Shops will also be developed on the property and the elderly sisters will live with seniors in the community.

Sister Fran urged other religious communities facing similar challenges with property to research all options and seek the advice of professionals. Mr. Hempstead, an attorney who worked with the Precious Blood sisters, suggested that communities take advantage of historical tax credits that may be available to them.

“They can be sold to big companies that need to offset tax liability,” he said. “Once sold, they reduce the amount of your debt for remodeling.”

Mr. Hempstead added that it’s important for religious communities to set aside pre-development costs if they are looking at redeveloping their properties.

The property planning workshop was sponsored by the National Religious Retirement Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nearly 60 religious communities participated.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.