EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 26, 2006

Protestant congregations eyeing vacant Catholic church properties

By Yadira Betances , Staff Writer

LAWRENCE - The Rev. Cecilio Perez says a prayer every time the telephone rings.

He is waiting to hear whether his offer to buy one of the city's closed Catholic churches has been accepted.

"God has blessed the church with a growing membership, and we need to make it comfortable for our elderly members," said Perez, pastor of Assembly of God Church on Vine Street.

He is one of several Protestant ministers eyeing, or buying, area Catholic churches.

Perez, pastor at Assembly of God Church since 1984, is looking for a new home because his congregation has grown to more than 200 families and his white clapboard church seats just 200.

In Lawrence, there are three church properties left vacant after seven city congregations were merged into three parishes by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

The reconfiguration of churches came after a decrease in weekly Mass attendance and drops in revenue in the aftermath of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

In the merger, Sts. Peter and Paul and Holy Trinity closed, and members of the two churches joined Holy Rosary, now known as Corpus Christi. Asuncion de la Virgen Maria closed, and members joined St. Mary Immaculate Conception. The new parish became St. Mary of the Assumption.

In South Lawrence, Sacred Heart closed, and members joined St. Patrick.

Though Asuncion was acquired by St. Mary after the two merged, the archdiocese allowed St. Mary to exchange the white church at the corner of Lawrence and Park streets for Sts. Peter and Paul.

The Rev. Jorge Reyes, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption, said the church with a leaky roof and outdated plumbing and heating systems was too costly to repair.

Asuncion Church was purchased by developer Carlos Corte in September for $350,000. He is unsure what he will do with the property.

Sacred Heart at 321 S. Broadway was purchased by ETC Development & Paramount Development Group for a $12 million, 33-unit housing project.

Catholic properties available in Lawrence include Holy Trinity Church and Holy Trinity School and St. Patrick's convent. Other churches for sale in the city are the Polish National Catholic Church on Phillips Street and Armenian Church at Hye Point, formerly known as Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church on East Haverhill Street.

Jim Elcock, executive vice president of Meredith and Grew Inc. in Boston, which helps the Archdiocese of Boston market buildings, said church properties are usually sold within a year.

"These types of properties are not being built anymore, so there are people and groups who are absolutely interested in them when they become available," said Elcock, whose real estate company is selling St. Patrick's convent, Holy Trinity Church and Holy Trinity School, all in Lawrence, and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel property in Methuen.

Elcock said the Catholic churches are appealing because of their prime locations, size and architecture.

"Catholics are not looking at them; it's nondenominational churches who meet in storefronts in neighborhoods with no parking," Elcock said. "A lot of them are leasing or owning worship spaces and want something bigger. This would give them greater standing in the community because they can become more active."

That is the exact reason why Juan Melo, pastor of God of the Prophecy Church in Lawrence, has been eyeing former Catholic churches.

He started his congregation three years ago with only 20 members. The congregation has swelled to 120, too much for the small 14-pew Baptist church they rent on Green Street.

After years of raising money through car washes, spaghetti suppers and raffles, God of the Prophecy Church is on its way to purchasing its own building.

"It's a blessing that a church that's only three years old is on its way to buying its own property," said Melo, whose congregation is interested in purchasing the Armenian church at Hye Pointe. "But it goes to prove that if you work hard, you can do anything."

Changing Lives Christian Church holds its services at a strip mall at 447 Prospect St., Methuen.

The nondenominational church has been renting space there for 11 out of their 13 years of existence, said pastor the Rev. Craig Mattheson. The church was previously at the corner of Broadway and Oakland Avenue, Methuen.

Mattheson said his congregation has been looking at existing church buildings, including Catholic churches, but they were not able to afford them.

"I'd love to see us in our own building within a couple of years," Mattheson said. "But I don't think it is going to happen."

He said money is an obstacle for them to buy a church or build a new one. He hopes the congregation can find a building that members can fix up.

"We're not looking for anything fancy," Mattheson said. "All we need is to make it a sanctuary for the glory of God. We're willing to go anywhere in the Merrimack Valley."

Mattheson said having their own building would mean more seating in the sanctuary, having more office space and expanding their counseling ministry.

"Parking is a problem in a storefront facility," Mattheson said. "One of the considerations would be to have ample parking."

Elcock, the real estate agent, said there is no asking price on St. Patrick's Convent, Holy Trinity Church nor Holy Trinity School. Interested parties place a bid on the church, which is then accepted by the archdiocese.

The real estate agent said church properties take four to eight months to sell. They advertise the churches as they do any other properties - in local newspapers, New England Real Estate Journal and Bankers and Tradesman.

The five church properties for sale:

Holy Trinity Church, 30 Trinity St.:

Year built, 1905

Lot size, 22 acres

Living area, 3,357 square feet

Building features, Gable roof, two baths, vinyl siding.

Holy Trinity School, 31 Trinity St.:

Year built, 1921

Lot size, 22 acres

Living area, 17,438 square feet

Building features, brick exterior.

Holy Cross Armenian, 54 E. Haverhill St.

Year built, 1931

Lot size, .54 acres

Living area, 5,964 square feet

Building features, brick exterior and gable roof.

Polish National Catholic, 38 Phillips St.

Built in 1900

No additional information available

St. Patrick's convent

Year built, 1908

Lot size, 22 acres

Living area, 17,438 square feet

Building features, brick exterior, gable roof