In a recent submission to Fingal County Council in Dublin, planning consultants acting for the Vincentian religious order asked for two plots of land at Castleknock College to be rezoned for housing.
The order has been educating pupils at the site since the 1830s, in the early days of Catholic emancipation, and plans to continue. But it has lands “surplus to the requirements for the efficient running of the school” and has identified plots on the northwestern and northeastern peripheries of the 28.65-hectare campus as having potential for housing “without upsetting” school activities.
The paper for the Vincentians by planning consultant Simon Clear does not quantify the area of the plots in question, which appear from maps in the submission to comprise a minor portion the campus and possibly less than an eighth of the ground. Still, one property valuer said the order could expect to receive between €8 million and €10 million per hectare if the land had planning permission for housing in the affluent west Dublin suburb. Seeking zoning “for residential development” is but the first step in a process that could yet realise a big sum of money if ever the plots are sold.
Times have certainly changed since John Lynch, the first student to enrol, arrived in 1835 from Clones, Co Monaghan, embarking on a journey that would lead to him becoming the first archbishop of Toronto: “I came on the Sunday before the opening Monday and had time to roam about the hills and inspect everything.” Nearly two centuries later, as a deep housing crisis spurs the price of houses and apartments and rents, the path now being taken by the Vincentians is one followed by many other orders.
Their submission on the Fingal draft development came as the Christian Brothers asked the local authority for residential zoning on some seven hectares of land at a retreat centre near Swords in north Co Dublin, which the valuer says could have a valuation greater than €22 million with planning permission.
A February submission to Dublin City Council by the Irish province of the Order of Carmelites sought residential zoning on a 2.6-hectare site at Terenure College that is not needed for education. The valuer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 400 apartments could be built on such lands in the south Dublin suburbs, suggesting a €32 million valuation at €12.3 million per hectare. “All of these values are based on having planning permission.”
These are but some of the latest manoeuvres in a huge process of property divestment by Catholic orders, their prospects fundamentally altered by ageing congregations and declining vocations to religious life. As a weakened church that once dominated Irish life looks to a diminished future role, the decades-long laicisation of church lands has gathered pace in the property boom that followed the 2008 crash.
Church bodies ranked among Ireland largest and most sophisticated real-estate owners for generations, with extensive holdings throughout the State. Now an examination of scores of public and private records reveals that religious orders have realised at least €1 billion – and quite possibly more – in property sales since 1999 in a process that seems set to continue for years to come.
“The Catholic Church is only beginning to get going on this,” says a senior property consultant who has advised religious orders on big land sales. “There’s an evolution taking place, cities are in a constant state of evolution. Part of that is that activities become redundant and the land under them changes hands.”
Still, the money raised by religious orders over many years comes against the backdrop of sporadic debate on extent of religious contributions to taxpayer-funded redress for survivors of institutional abuse.
Many religious property sales took place in the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, at a time when church bodies were under pressure to make a bigger contribution to the 2002 public redress scheme for former residents of religious-run institutions who suffered abuse. The costs of the child abuse inquiry and redress were estimated at €1.5 billion in 2017 by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
In the 2002 redress deal with Bertie Ahern’s government, heavily criticised then and since, Catholic institutions entered a binding agreement in 2002 to pay €128 million to the State for redress. So far €125 million has been received in cash, property and counselling services, according to the Department of Education.
Figures on church land sales from 1999 on were provided to the government in 2009 by 16 of the 18 congregations that were in talks at that time to increase religious contributions after the 2002 scheme. Some €111.5 million in cash and €7.4 million in property has since been received under a 2009 voluntary agreement to provide a further €353 million, a target later cut to €226 million. Two further property transfers and one further cash contribution are outstanding.
That data suggests the congregations had realised more than €600 million between them on property sales in the 10 years to 2009. The figures included some €170 million realised by the Sisters of Mercy in more than 260 separate sales, some for nominal amounts and many described as below market value; €105 million realised by the Oblate Fathers from the 2004 sale of Belcamp College and surrounding farmlands at Balgriffin in north Co Dublin; €80.23 million realised by the Christian Brothers in that period; and €66.3 million realised by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity.
The more recent wave of sales includes three former seminaries, as sharp a reflection as any of the lack of young men seeking to join the priesthood. The Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin realised €95 million in 2019 from the sale of Holy Cross college in the north city, once Dublin’s major training college. That same year the Jesuit order received some €65 million for the Milltown Park site of its former theologate in Ranelagh, Dublin 6. In 2015 the Redemptorist order received €42 million for the Marianella seminary, church and grounds in Rathgar, also in Dublin 6. The list of other sales goes on and on, with the value of known large transactions in Dublin since the crash exceeding €400 million.
Intensive property market activity by religious orders and church bodies comes as talks continue between Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman and the congregations involved in running mother-and-baby homes on a contribution to a new €800 million State redress schemes for thousands of former residents of those homes.
Last year O’Gorman approached the Bon Secours sisters, the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of St John of God, and he wrote also to the Legion of Mary, a Catholic lay organisation. A spokesman this week said the Minister was “engaged in a process of negotiation” with six religious congregations and one lay body. “While these negotiations are ongoing they are being treated as confidential. Accordingly, it would not be appropriate to say anything further on the matter at this time.”
Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien separately urged the church last year to allow church property to be used to help tackle the housing crisis, something Catholic leaders insisted the church was already doing in a significant way. “The department and the Land Development Agency [LDA] are engaging with the church on the identification and potential utilisation of suitable properties and lands,” said O’Brien’s spokeswoman, without providing any further detail. The LDA is the public body formally established last year to amass and develop State lands for housing.
Whatever the outlook for the LDA’s engagement with church figures, the property consultant said the rapid shrinkage of religious communities was the driving force behind the cascade of sales in the past two decades. “They get to the point where there’s a dozen priests rattling around in a building built for a couple of hundred people.”
The orders needed to “right-size” their accommodation and put money aside for care and pensions for elderly religious. Having studied the market for years, the consultant believes most of the major properties that fell to be sold by religious orders have already come to the market. “I suspect the majority of the reorganisation that was going to take place with large landholdings has already taken place. The tsunami hit them a long time ago in terms of new novices and priests.”
But that only part of the story. In February, the Dublin diocese urged the city council to assign dozens of church sites in the city for zoning that would allow homes to be built on them. That push by the diocese has been resisted by council chief executive Owen Keegan, who has made a recommendation against such zoning to councillors.
Councillors vote soon on a development plan to set ground rules for building in Dublin for the rest of the decade. But already some close observers of the row with the diocese believe the matter could well end up in the High Court if the council refuses to grant a zoning change. All of that would have been difficult to imagine in the heyday of the Irish church. Not so now.