Church Properties Conference Addresses Challenges, Highlights Innovation

David Murphy

The second annual Church Properties Conference was held on campus from October 29th - October 31st and brought together 230 in-person attendees from as far away as Australia and Ireland. Over 30 different Catholic Archdioceses and religious orders, dozens of other churches and faith groups, and academic institutions including Cal Berkeley, Villanova, and Rutgers attended in order to learn and share research, challenges, and best practices.

This mix is important because the intersection between real estate (the world’s largest asset class) and the Catholic Church (the world’s largest non-state landowner) is complex, covering many professional and academic disciplines. As such, the conference boasted 47 talks, panels, and paper presentations on topics ranging from canon and civil law, affordable housing development, theology of place, architectural preservation, land leases, environmental stewardship, and more. The combination of the attendees and the topics provides a unique opportunity for leaders from the church, academia, and industry to convene, converse, and collaborate about Church property from outside their normal professional silos.

The "Working with Real Estate Partners" panel featured real estate industry experts from various verticals and geographies.
The "Working with Real Estate Partners" panel featured real estate industry experts from various verticals and geographies.

“I found the range of topics to be incredibly insightful not only in deepening my understanding of church property topics that I was already aware of such as theology and canon law, but also in exposing me to topics like zoning that weren’t on my radar at all,” said conference attendee Ethan Kelley, C.S.C., a seminarian with the Congregation of Holy Cross who is studying in Notre Dame’s Masters of Divinity program.

Kelley noted that the conversations were especially helpful in his study for the priesthood. “Church property is unique in that it has deep significance for us as Catholics, whether that is historical, cultural, canonical, theological, and liturgical; it is where our intangible faith takes shape. But it also has deep civil, legal, architectural, and financial significance. As a priest, I’ll have to know about both realities to be an effective pastor.”

Many of the topics related specifically to challenges facing churches of all denominations in the US. As demographic trends within the US shift away from practicing religion and geographically relocating to the South, away from legacy population hubs like Buffalo, New York, churches are quickly being thrust deep into the real estate market whether they like it or not. Across the Midwest and North East, dioceses are closing and consolidating parishes and schools. The Archdiocese of Pittsburgh, for example, just closed about 130 parishes. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Atlanta has had a 2,100% increase in Catholics and has tripled the number of its parishes in the last 50 years, mirroring the rapid growth of the city in general. In both Pittsburgh and Atlanta, the issue of Church property is a priority, but for very different reasons.

Despite the challenges facing the Church and her property, there is great hope for the Church to leverage her real assets for innovative and unique opportunities for meeting the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of people today. To highlight this innovation, the conference partnered with MDKeller, a holding company co-founded by NFL kicker Harrison Butker, to present the “To the Heights Award” to recognize outstanding, innovative, and mission aligned uses of Church property. The award, the first of its kind, asked for ideas and examples that met five criteria: it has to be a bold vision, distinctively Catholic, an innovative use of Church property, fulfill the highest and best use of the property, and have an eye towards scale and sustainability.

Marty Arlinghaus, founder of the Serenelli Project, raises an autographed cleat after winning the inaugural "To the Heights" award by MDKeller.
Marty Arlinghaus, founder of the Serenelli Project, raises an autographed cleat after winning the inaugural "To the Heights" award by MDKeller.

After announcing the prize, CPI was inundated with applications, receiving over 130 submissions from every continent. After a review of the initial applicants, thirty semifinalists were selected to submit a more detailed application, including how they would use the $10,000 cash prize sponsored by MDKeller. Ten finalists were selected before the panel of judges named the Serenelli Project as the winner during the conference’s dinner on Monday, October 30th.

The Cincinnati-based Serenelli Project was founded by Marty Arlinghaus as he became more involved with his diocese’s prison ministries and saw the need for a strong Catholic community to individuals returning from incarceration or who simply have a criminal history by living in community in an abandoned Catholic church. It takes its namesake from Alessandro Serenelli, an Italian who murdered St Maria Goretti in 1902 and was subsequently imprisoned. During his time in prison, he experienced a radical conversion of heart, ultimately being released and entering a monastery as a religious brother.

Arlinghaus sees this project as intimately connected to church property, as he wants to use the many abandoned and derelict Catholic churches to help repair the interior lives of so many formerly incarcerated people by having members of the Serenelli Project learn the trades to fix up the churches.

“To win the inaugural "To the Heights" award by MDKeller is a true milestone for us in the Serenelli Project,” he said. “Being in the final buildup to undertaking our church rehabilitation project, not only will the money help us, but the connections from across the country that we made at the Notre Dame Church Properties Conference will transform our vision into a national beacon of forgiveness, restoration, and healing.”