Archdiocesan properties transfer follows U.S. dioceses in responding to canon law directive

The former All Saints Parish in Detroit is pictured in this 2009 file photo. A recent move of parish, school and Church-affiliated properties to a new real estate holding company, Mooney Real Estate Holdings, is the first step in an effort to align the Archdiocese of Detroit's civil structures with century-old canonical regulations regarding ownership of church property. 

Move of real estate, assets to holding company first step toward parish incorporation, in line with century-old Vatican norms

DETROIT — The Archdiocese of Detroit has nearly completed a transfer of Church-affiliated properties to a new real estate holdings entity in order to be in closer conformity with canon law, archdiocesan officials said.

The process to move legal ownership of 847 Church-affiliated properties to Mooney Real Estate Holdings follows a century-old directive of the Holy See to ensure U.S. dioceses’ civil structures follow the guidelines spelled out in Church law regarding the ownership and management of parish and Church assets.

In 1911, the Vatican directed dioceses in the United States to move toward a parish incorporation model of civil ownership, as opposed to a “corporate sole” model used by some dioceses in which all diocesan property is titled in the name of the local bishop, said Fr. Jeff Day, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

The transfer of properties in all six archdiocesan counties to Mooney Real Estate Holdings, a nonprofit corporation overseen by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron and a seven-person board, is the first of a two-step process that eventually will lead to the establishment of individual parish corporations to hold assets.

“This should come as a welcome change for our parishes and parishioners,” said Ned McGrath, director of public affairs for the Archdiocese of Detroit. “The church properties they’ve built and supported will be more directly under their control in the eyes of civil law.”

Fr. Day discussed the move six months ago in a June 22 letter to priests of the archdiocese.

“The corporation sole model is problematic because it gives the false impression that the bishop has ownership of all parish property in his diocese,” Fr. Day wrote in a June 22 letter to priests of the archdiocese. “According to canon law, the goods of a parish belong to the parish itself, and not to the bishop — although canon law does require a pastor to make an account to the diocesan bishop as to how parish property is acquired, administered and sold.”

Although parishes are already treated as separate entities in canon law, under civil law, a bishop could theoretically claim ownership or even sell parish property unilaterally, which is a circumstance the Vatican’s 1911 directive sought to avoid, said Michael Trueman, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Detroit and a canon lawyer.

“Moving in the direction of parish incorporation is a way to have civil law more closely align with our life following canon law,” Trueman said. “This is what was communicated to the bishops in the United States in 1911, that ‘corporation sole’ is tolerable but parish incorporation is to be pursued, and where this is not possible in some civil law jurisdictions, the bishops are to try to have legislatures provide for this civil law model so that ecclesiastical property can be held this way.”

The Archdiocese of Detroit initially began the process of transferring ownership of its properties in 2007, but the process was postponed until recently, when the Archdiocesan Finance Council and College of Consultors recommended restarting the initiative in a two-step process. The creation of Mooney Real Estate Holdings, whose corporate charter requires it to defer to canon law in all of its dealings, is the first of these steps, Fr. Day wrote.

“When that process is complete, the next phase will be to move the property titles from MREH to individual parish corporations,” Fr. Day wrote. “Many of the property transactions are complex and the two-step process will allow for a more incremental, strategic and cost-efficient process.”

Fr. Day said the second phase of the process of parish incorporation would be done deliberately and slowly, with a few parishes pastored by members of the College of Consultors serving as a test to allow other parishes to learn from the process.

In April, the archdiocese issued a statement to the Lapeer County Press regarding the initiative, which involves “parishes, schools, cemeteries, other ministries and related entities,” it said.

“The transfer of property from Archbishop Vigneron, as a ‘corporate sole,’ to Mooney Real Estate Holdings is simply part of an ongoing process to ensure our status in civil law reflects what we’re asked to do under Church (canon) law,” the statement said.

The properties transfer to Mooney Real Estate Holdings will not affect parish life or otherwise impact the daily life of the Church in southeast Michigan, the statement added.

“It is important to note that this hasn’t changed anything on a day-to-day level at our parishes, cemeteries, schools and other properties,” it said. “Although title to the property is now held by Mooney Holdings, this is just a civil law process meant to get us more closely aligned with the laws and teachings of the Catholic Church.”