Mass. high court to decide on who owns parishes: archdiocese or parishioners

Mass. high court to decide on who owns parishes: archdiocese or parishioners

“Parishioners look to SJC to set policy on use of church assets”

When the Maffei family agreed to sell eight acres of land in Wellesley to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in 1946, they believed the property would always be used as a church to be named after their father.

Nearly 60 years later, when the pastor of St. James the Great Church _ named after James Maffei _ asked parishioners for donations to refurbish the church, Eileen Hanafin gave $35,000.

In a legal challenge that will go before the state’s highest court Thursday, both the Maffeis and Hanafin claim they were misled by the archdiocese, which announced plans to close St. James in 2004 as part of a reconfiguration that would shutter about 60 parishes in the archdiocese. Both believe the archdiocese violated terms of their original agreements by deciding to close the parish.

Although the arguments made by St. James parishioners focus on the limited issues of the land sale and cash gift, the case is being closely watched by parishioners at other closed churches. They hope the Supreme Judicial Court will decide a larger question: Who owns parish assets, the parishioners or the archdiocese?

There should be no question of how the court will decide if it doesn’t want to meddle in the free exercise of our religion. Plus the civil legal organization of the archdiocese is clear as well. Parishioners do not own the parishes. The archdiocese does not hold parish assets in trust for the parishioners. This was a major controversy in the US in the 19th century and was settled then. The archdiocese’s legal argument is clear.

In their legal brief, they say the transfer of the property to the archdiocese was in a charitable trust, to use the property as a church for the benefit of the public and for the advancement of religion. They argue that only the state Attorney General has legal standing to file lawsuits over alleged breaches of trust by a charity. The archdiocese’s attorneys also note there is no claim that the money Hanafin donated was not used for renovations and refurbishing St. James.

If the attorney general wishes to file suit, she may do so. If the plaintiffs win, the precedent will be crippling since it means that no charitable institution would ever be able to sell property donated to it.

Interesting to note also that James Maffei was apparently canonized after his death if, as the reporter wrote, the St. James the Great Church was named after him. Sheesh.

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  • Well, if the Maffei’s actually did sell the property in trust for use of the land as a Church, they may have an argument – it is not uncommon for trusts to contain specific use clauses (very common for donations of land for use as a public park).  However, there are some legal doctrines which allow reformation of the trust restrictions based on the donor’s original intent and intervening circumstances, which vary from state to state.  A lot also depends upon what terms are in place if the trust restrictions are violated – eg, who gets the remainder or reversion?

    However, the lady complaining about her renovation donation does not seem to have much to stand on if, in fact, the money was used to renovate the Church.

  • If the intentions of a decades-old donation start becoming excessively authoritative, I wonder if heirs could start making a ruckus over large grants to Catholic in name only schools and universities.

  • One way or another, the laws should be made clear to the donors, who would tend to think of their church building as a lasting memorial. Don’t lawyers oversee large donations like that?

  • Well, trusteeship was an issue settled from the Church’s perspective but as for state & local law it all depends. The civil law aspect of this may or may not be closed. I am strongly inclined to the latter, but I am aware that things can get squirrelly on real property law for churches….