By: David A. Smith
[Continued from yesterday’s Part 1.]
As we saw yesterday, my morbid fascination with the deconsecration, closure, occupancy-vigil, and litigation of St. Frances X. Cabrini Catholic Church in Scituate has caused me to track it past the media’s loss-of-interest point (the vigilers’ peaceful departure) and to the question, is there redevelopment after closure?
Sources used in this post
Quincy Patriot-Ledger (December 20, 2011; midnight blue font)
Forbes (January 8, 2012; emerald font)
AHI: Houses sacred and profane (February 27, 2013), 3 parts, churches into housing
While for some churches, like St. James the Great in Wellesley, the answer is rubble to dust – it was sold to the Town of Wellesley with an anti-resurrection deed restriction (no churches allowed in the future) and will be turned into public recreation space – for Frances X. Cabrini redevelopment or reuse is highly likely – not least because the Archdiocese will want to recoup its unexpected cost of closure – a hefty real estate tax bill caused by the vigil.
Parishioner and vigiler Nancy Shilts before the final service at F. X. Cabrini
Churches are so used to being exempt from real estate taxes that it must have come as a shock to the Archdiocese to find themselves being assessed by the Town of Scituate – but really there was no alternative:
So here is the problem. You are an assessor for the Town of Scituate and there is this building. The Archbishop, who should know, says that is not a church anymore. On the other hand it is being occupied by a group of people, who have organized a not-for-profit, and are certainly acting like it is a church.
It is actually not that hard a problem for an assessor. When in doubt, tax it. So the problem then goes to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board to rule in the case of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston (RCAB), a Corporation Sole v the Board of Assessors of the Town of Scituate.
Reilly commenting on the Archdiocese’s predicament
A ‘corporation sole’, Mr. Reilly explains, is a unique legal status:
As is common for Catholic churches, title is in the name of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, a Corporation Sole. Corporation sole is a logical way for title to Catholic church property to be held given the hierarchical nature of the Church. Don’t try it yourself, unless you want serious IRS trouble.
Without bothering to research it, I speculate that the corporation sole possessed by churches by virtue of their existing long before there were income taxes or even a United States to create its tax code, and as one of the awkward axioms necessary to square the government’s duty not to interfere with the establishment or exercise of religion with the tax exemption that has been a staple of Western practice since before there were nations, much less Federal income tax laws.
Does that mean you’re a Corporation Sole?
Still, having lost possession of the church and having deconsecrated it so that masses could no longer be held there, the Archdiocese could protest its new tax status only by paying the tax and then filing a claim for refund.
The archdiocese was seeking a refund of up to $141,403 in taxes paid to Scituate between fiscal years 2008 and 2011.
This is one of several ways in which tax law inverts the normal rules of US jurisprudence.
In Scituate, the property taxes in question are sitting in an escrow account and cannot be used by the town until the appeals process is complete.
In tax law, you are guilty until proven innocent, and whereas in civil or criminal cases you can get out on bail pending the trial, the IRS doesn’t take credit risk: you can’t plead until you pay the full disputed amount.
I see right through your form-over-substance argument
In this case neither party wanted to take credit risk on the other – understandable in each respect –
In my business you don’t last long if you take credit risk
The archdiocese argued that the closed St. Frances X. Cabrini Church and its surrounding parcels are exempt from taxation because of the religious and charitable activities performed by a group of former parishioners who have been occupying the church since 2004. In a decision handed down Friday, the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board ruled in favor of Scituate’s board of assessors, concluding that the archdiocese forfeited its exempt status once it closed the church in October 2004.
I would not have enjoyed being the Archdiocese attorney who brought forward that argument, as it requires not logic but illogical faith:
In trying to make an argument for continued exemption, the archdiocese ended up being hoist on its own petard:
In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s a petard and he’s about to be hoisted by it
In the present appeals, the Board found that RCAB terminated all official religious activity on the subject properties as of October, 2004. … RCAB effectively ceased occupying and using the subject properties for religious worship and instruction as of that time.
In addition to their aforesaid dominant use of the Church, the Vigilers or The Friends conduct a 45-minute lay-lead service at the Church on Sundays. … RCAB and/or the Vigilers’ former Parish priest have labeled the Vigilers’ or The Friends’ actions as being, among other things, “illegal, immoral, sinful, and heresy.” The testimony also describes the lay-lead services and any other uses as ‘minuscule’ compared to the Vigilers’ and The Friends’ dominant use.
So it is hard for the archbishop to argue that this illegal, immoral, sinful and heretical stuff going on qualifies the property for tax exemption. They can’t ride on the 501(c)(3) status of the occupiers, because occupying is not a valid exempt use.
That’s basically what the appellate tax board said:
The Friends of St. Frances X. Cabrini, the group that has held a sit-in vigil at the former church for the past seven years, has occupied the building for the sole purpose of advocating for the church’s re-opening, the board said. Because the parishioners’ prayer services and charitable work is not sanctioned by the archdiocese, the property owner is not eligible for an exemption, the board determined.
“The Friends’ dominant use of the church is as unauthorized occupiers and guards,” the ruling states.
Thus an irony: When the Archdiocese used the property as a church, it was exempt from real estate taxation. When it stopped using the property as a church – when, in fact, it didn’t merely suspend religious use but renounced it entirely, it reverted to the normal state of American property:
I’m telling you, nothing holy is going on
It was taxable. Render unto Scituate
Jay Talerman, Scituate’s attorney in the case, said the decision is a major victory for the town.
“I think this sets a precedent,” Talerman said. “This is not the only municipality in Massachusetts looking at the issue of the use of closed churches.”
It certainly seems to me a definitive precedent.
Several cities and towns around the state are levying property taxes on closed churches. One of those is Star of the Sea in Quincy. Since last July, the city has been charging the archdiocese $7,829 each quarter for taxes on the church building itself and $2,709 on the rectory.
Reanimation as condo’s, or demolition in favor of homestead homes?
In 2015, the property was sold for $600,000 (30% of assessed value) to a residential developer that specializes in converting non-residential buildings like churches into other uses, but who later decided to demolish it to clear the site for greenfield development of four homes after local residents squashed his plan to make it affordable condominiums.
Brian Sullivan, chairman of Scituate’s board of assessors –
A few months later, Mr. Sullivan would be disbarred as an attorney after “repeatedly engaged in serial, temporary misappropriation of trust funds on deposit in by using the funds of succeeding clients to cover obligations owed to prior clients,” and left the Board of Assessors in June, 2012.
– said his town was the first to tax the archdiocese after the religious entity decided in 2004 to shut down more than 80 churches.
“I feel bad because I am a Catholic, and I was baptized at St. Frances. I don’t relish sending the archdiocese a tax bill,” Sullivan said. “But rules are rules, and they are not exempt.”
I had no idea those rules would apply to me
Indeed they are not tax-exempt, a thought that five years ago gave Jon Rogers his own bit of schadenfreude:
One group that is not as sympathetic to the archdiocese is the Friends of St. Frances Cabrini. The parishioners said the archdiocese is disingenuous by first condemning the sit-in vigil, then trying to use it to get a tax break.
As we just saw above, five years hiatus softened Mr. Rogers’ views.
“There is a sense of justice here,” said Jon Rogers. “This can all go away instantly: Just open us up as a fully-functioning church, and they can take their religious exemption. Until then, they’ve got to pay taxes.”
Maryellen and Jon Rogers, late in their dozen-year campaign
In the event the Archdiocese never reversed course, and with Cabrini’s closure Mr. Rogers’ perspective has changed:
Now Mr. Rogers hopes the town “can turn our spiritual home into something beneficial to the people of Scituate,” he said.
What will my future be?