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Spotlight Report

Humbling move marks a new era

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/4/2003

Through much of the 20th century, the Italianate palazzo that was home to each of Boston's cardinal-archbishops symbolized the glory of the Catholic Church in Boston.

But over the last two years, as the church has been rocked by the sexual abuse scandal, the house has come to symbolize a distance between the leaders of the church and its laypeople.

Yesterday's announcement by the archdiocese that it plans to sell the mansion, as well as 28 acres of surrounding property, marks a new era for the archdiocese, which is trying to reestablish its credibility after acknowledging that scores of priests allegedly sexually abused minors over five decades.

"That house came to be a manifestation of the power and the glory and the militancy of the archdiocese," said Thomas H. O'Connor, university historian at Boston College. "It was presented in a Boston that up until that time didn't accept Catholics, and it was unconsciously an in-your-face presentation of what Cardinal [William H.] O'Connell felt the church had grown to be by the 1920s."

According to city records, the property at 2101 Commonwealth Ave. was assessed on Jan. 1, 2002, at $13.7 million, including a house worth $4.1 million and land valued at $9.6 million.

Boston College officials have long expressed an interest in buying all or part of the property held by the archdiocese in Brighton, which is located across from the university. Although relations between Boston College and the archdiocese have on occasion been strained, Boston College is likely to be an attractive buyer because it is a Catholic college, affiliated with the Jesuit religious order of priests.

Boston College also has the means to buy the land; the college boasts a $1 billion endowment.

"Boston College has an interest in the archdiocesan holdings in Brighton, because of the proximity to the university and because of our well-established need for space," BC spokesman Jack Dunn said. "Given this announcement, we'd be happy to talk to archdiocesan officials about resolving our mutual needs."

The property's value to other buyers is uncertain. The land is in a residential neighborhood, and neighbors are likely to oppose any development on the property. Boston College, as an educational institution, would be exempt from many zoning restrictions under the state's Dover Amendment, but Dunn said the college has not held discussions about whether it would seek to build new structures on the land.

Several Boston city officials expressed concern yesterday about the future of the land.

"I would like to see as much of that open space preserved as possible, and if there is any development on the church's property, I would hope that it's affordable senior housing," said Councilor Jerry McDermott, who represents Allston-Brighton.

News of the sale came as a surprise to Council President Michael Flaherty, who said church leaders, including Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, had pledged to work with the city if the church planned to sell off land in the city. "I would hope they make good on their promise," Flaherty said.

Seth Gitell, a spokesman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said last night that the mayor "hopes to have a conversation with the chancery within the next couple days about the future of that site."

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, archdiocesan spokesman, said that the archdiocese has not spoken with potential buyers, but that it "is willing and ready to talk to any interested party." The Brighton property, which includes the cardinal's residence, was acquired in the late 19th century by Archbishop John J. Williams for the purpose of constructing a seminary in what was then a suburban area. In the 1920s, an affluent Catholic family, the Keiths, decided to build a house for O'Connell on the property, and in 1927 O'Connell moved into the house.

The residence has four floors, including a finished basement. The first floor has been used in recent years for offices and meeting rooms, as well as a chapel; the second floor as the residence of the bishop and his secretaries; and the third floor as the residence of several nuns who maintained the house and assisted the bishop.

Each of O'Connell's successors, including Cardinals Richard J. Cushing, Humberto S. Medeiros, and Bernard F. Law, lived in the mansion, as did Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who served as interim administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston after Law's resignation last December. The current archbishop, O'Malley, moved into the house just prior to his installation July 30, but last month he moved out of the house into the rectory at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.

Kevin Cullen, Ralph Ranalli, and Donovan Slack of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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