Rome on the Range

The pending sale of Good Shepherd Elementary sticks close to home.

The good news about the sale of Good Shepherd Catholic Elementary School is that the deal doesn't have to wait on a decision from Rome, a cumbersome process that could delay any closing by months.

And while the transaction still requires final approval from Denver archdiocesan councils, Good Shepherd's pastor, the Reverend Neal Pfister, believes that approval for transfer of the two-story, 39,000-square-foot school building at 940 Fillmore Street could come by mid-November.

The property was auctioned off last month by Sheldon Good & Company, marking the first time the Denver Archdiocese has used that method to dispose of any of the holdings in its sizable real-estate portfolio. Bidding began at $1.5 million, and the successful bidder -- another school -- has not been publicly disclosed. But even though the sale price of the former St. Philomena's School -- which students called "Saint Sack Full of Peanuts" -- is expected to be a few peanuts more than the starting figure, it's still short of the $3 million threshold that requires such deals in the United States to be reviewed by the Vatican.

And that's important, Pfister says, because proceeds from the sale of the 1925 structure are earmarked for construction of a new elementary school scheduled to open in August 2003, next to Good Shepherd's middle school, located at 620 Elizabeth Street. (The current two-campus system, which Catholic school officials consider inefficient, resulted from the merger of the defunct St. Philomena and St. John's parishes in 1981, when Good Shepherd was created.)

Had it been more profitable, the Good Shepherd sale might have been subject to a longstanding Roman Catholic procedure known as "alienation of property," which dates from the Middle Ages. Under that rule, a bishop must get approval for major transactions from church officials working under the pope. Dollar figures vary from country to country, but in the U.S., any property sale over $3 million falls into the alienation category.

While Greg Kail, spokesman for the Denver Archdiocese, says he can't discuss the sale price of Good Shepherd, he can talk about the pending $6 million sale of the former Central Catholic High School to the Jesuit order. That deal was made public, Kail explains, because the Jesuits will be raising money to pay for their planned Arrupe Jesuit High School, which will occupy the site between East 18th and 19th avenues and Logan and Pennsylvania streets.

Despite the recent activity, Kail says the Denver Archdiocese has no immediate plans to auction or sell off additional school property, in part because Catholic-school enrollment has been steadily increasing during the past decade. Last year, nearly 11,000 students were enrolled in Denver diocesan elementary and high schools, with another 2,600 or so in private Catholic elementary and high schools, such as Regis.

Contemporary interest in Catholic schooling can run counter to the inner workings of the church, however.

"The Vatican hasn't gotten past the nineteenth century," says the Reverend Thomas Reese, SJ, editor of Americamagazine, who's written a book touching on church finances. "They are still under the impression that land is the chief asset. This dates from the medieval era, of course, when land was the only wealth."

The complicated church rules were designed to protect dioceses from being depleted by their clerical chief operating officers -- the better to avoid an ecclesiastical Enron.

"It's to keep a bishop who gets some funny idea from selling all the lands to erect a huge statue to Our Lady of the Mountains, or maybe invest everything in penny stocks," says Reese. "Or to stop some Franciscan bishop who wants to liquidate everything and give it to the poor."

But trying to conduct business in the 21st century when bound by creaky medieval rules has caused some chafing among church leaders. And while the hot-button issue at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, which starts November 11 in Washington, D.C., is certain to concern proposed measures to curb sexual abuse by priests, finances are likely to be on the docket, too. In recent years, American bishops have sought a higher cutoff before they're required to submit transactions for Rome's approval, arguing that waiting for the clerical green light can cause long delays, leaving potential deals in jeopardy.

Pfister and his parish are hoping for good things to come out of the Good Shepherd deal, including a completed school facility that can be enjoyed by all of Congress Park as a community center. Says Pfister, "We'd like to open it up to the public."

And that's not peanuts.

 
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