When the Catholic church was in its prime in Ireland thousands of priests trained at Holy Cross college in central Dublin, the city’s major seminary for more than a century.
Now the historic building and its extensive adjoining lands are being sold off in a €95m property deal, as the weakened church cashes in on a rising real estate market.
The sale reflects the declining property needs of the once-mighty church, whose influence has waned after decades of scandal over child abuse by priests, and a property market that is still seeing prices increase, albeit at a slower pace.
The Holy Cross deal is but one among many. Current sales by Catholic orders include several prominent properties in south Dublin, where values are highest and rising. The Jesuit order has sought more than €55m for one prime residential site; the Carmelite order is in line to receive €35m for another; the Spiritan congregation has sought more than €20m for a property; and the Order of St Augustine is seeking more than €18m for a site.
“Over the past 12 months we have noticed an increase in the volume of land being traded by religious orders in the Irish market,” said Marie Hunt, executive director at estate agents CBRE Ireland. “The depth of demand for these holdings and pricing being achieved is likely to encourage other religious orders to bring additional land parcels to the market over the course of the next six months.”
Church bodies have long ranked among Ireland’s largest and most sophisticated real estate owners, with extensive holdings throughout the state. But an institution that once dominated Irish life is today greatly diminished, with priests, nuns and brothers ageing and few new entrants to religious life.
Property market figures say a further reason why church bodies are selling property is to fund donations to a state redress scheme for former residents of religious-run institutions who suffered abuse. The costs of the child abuse inquiry and redress were estimated at €1.5bn in 2017 by Ireland’s comptroller and auditor general, the public spending watchdog.
Catholic institutions entered a binding agreement in 2002 to pay €128m to the state for redress. So far €124.9m has been received in cash, property and counselling services, according to the education ministry. A further €106.44m has been received under a 2009 voluntary agreement to provide €353m, a target that was later revised down to €226m.
“A number of properties that have transferred to the state have yet to be valued — thus the true value of completed transfers is higher,” said a ministry spokesman.
Although attention has centred on the large-scale multi-million-euro transactions, Sister Liz Murphy, secretary-general of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland — an umbrella group of 180 congregations — said many congregations have also quietly gifted property for social housing.
“[The] religious are more than playing their part in that area,” she said.
The sale of Holy Cross to the Gaelic Athletic Association, Ireland’s biggest sports organisation, fetched a price of about €95m for the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin according to two people familiar with the deal. “The transaction has been approved by the Vatican and the charities regulator,” said the spokesperson for the archdiocese.
The GAA has entered talks with Hines, a US commercial property group with large Irish interests, to build up to 1,200 apartments, sports facilities, a hotel and commercial units on the site. The sporting body will receive some €105m from Hines, said one person familiar with the deal.
With Dublin in the grip of a homelessness crisis, the diocese said the new homes built on site would include “social, affordable and private housing”.
Surging prices for houses and apartments have prompted fears of overvaluation, with many young workers priced out as rents also rise. But some heat has come out of the market. Official data show residential property prices rose nationally by 2 per cent in the year to June, down from 11.9 per cent in the same month in 2018.
All of this heralds profound change at Holy Cross, whose time as a seminary ended about 20 years ago as the church confronted a collapse in the number of young men seeking to join the priesthood.
The Dublin diocese has said the proceeds will be used to reinvest in “people-led pastoral programme” as it “looks to different forms of ministry in the coming years”.
The average age of many religious orders is in the 70s and upwards. Sr Murphy said the need to look after elderly people was one consideration in property sales.
“Ageing is one factor. Another is the changing nature of what we call our ministry or our work,” she said.
“The nature of large-scale institutions has changed. You’ll find us now living in housing estates in the middle of communities and in smaller groupings.”