Millions spent on Catholic clergy anger parishioners

Archbishop Wilton Gregory defends spending on Buckhead homes that came from Margaret Mitchell’s kin.

A generous gift

The will of Joseph Mitchell, Margaret Mitchell’s nephew, left $15 million to the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Cathedral of Christ the King, where Joseph Mitchell attended. The gift was distributed four ways:

$7.5 million: Christ the King

$3.75 million: Archdiocese of Atlanta

$3.5 million: Catholic Charities of Atlanta

$250,000: Assorted charities

The spending so far:

$2.2 million: Amount the archdiocese spent on a new home for the archbishop

$2.2 million: Amount Christ the King has committed to new residences for the rector of Christ the King and other parish priests

$1.1 million: $10,000 gifts to 110 parishes and groups in the diocese

Source: Archdiocese of Atlanta

Weather permitting, the Cathedral of Christ the King on Peachtree Street will begin renovations next month on a newly acquired rectory for its parish priests at a cost, including purchase of the property, of $2.2 million.

The residence once housed the archbishop for the  Archdiocese of Atlanta, but Archbishop Wilton Gregory recently moved into a new, 6,196-square-foot home on Habersham Road in Buckhead built by the archdiocese, also at a cost of  $2.2 million.

The two building expenditures for the benefit of the archdiocese’s senior clergy, courtesy of a $15 million bequest from Margaret Mitchell’s nephew, have ignited a controversy over what some parishioners say is an extravagant use of church funds. It’s also thrust the archdiocese into an international debate over what example the Catholic hierarchy should set under the leadership of Pope Francis, who’s urged Catholics to live simpler, more frugal lives, and who himself eschewed the papal apartments at the Vatican in favor of humbler quarters.

“We’ve always looked to the pope,” said Beth Maguire, a Christ the King parishioner for more than 20 years. “This (expenditure) seems to go against what he came out with when he was elected. This is an excessive lifestyle.”

In January, Maguire and nine other parishioners at Christ the King met with Gregory and Christ the King’s rector, Rev. Monsignor Frank McNamee. They requested that Gregory sell his new home, halt the planned renovation of his old one (and move back into it) and spend the money instead on aiding the poor, as they believe Pope Francis would wish. They recommended a more modest renovation of the existing rectory on the grounds of Christ the King to house parish priests.

Gregory turned them down. In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month, Gregory and McNamee said the expenditures were necessary for their living arrangements and that it was too late to reverse course. They also noted the plans had been approved by governing bodies within their respective institutions.

“To undo what has been publicly announced for two years wouldn’t be a prudent use of archdiocese resources,” Gregory said.

Gregory also said he thinks the new home would have the pope’s blessing.

“He wants his bishops to engage with his people,” said Gregory, who was installed as archbishop in Atlanta in 2005. His new home, he said, allows for larger groups to visit; the grounds also are good for cookouts and other outdoor activities. In this way, said Gregory, he can follow the pope’s admonition to “smell like the flock” — to be close to parishioners.

“It’s important for me to connect,” he said. “And that’s another dominant theme for Pope Francis.”

Mitchell heir bequeaths millions

Margaret Mitchell had no children but she had a brother, Stephens Mitchell, who had sons, Joseph and Eugene. Each was the recipient of their famed aunt’s largess stemming from the enduring popularity of her 1936 novel “Gone With the Wind.” Eugene died in 2007; Joseph on Oct. 11, 2011. Each was 76.

While Eugene left a legacy for his family, Joseph bequeathed cash, stocks and bonds to the archdiocese and the church where he’d knelt and prayed. It also included his ranch-style home on 1.8 acres on Habersham Road in the heart of Buckhead. His will asked that the archbishop give “primary consideration” to the needs of Christ the King, as well fund the archdiocese’s “general religious and charitable purposes.”

Gregory and McNamee said they’ve adhered to their late parishioner’s instructions. They take issue with people who say they have not.

Half of Mitchell’s estate, $7.5 million, was disbursed to the archdiocese, individual parishes and several charities, with the largest charitable gift going to Catholic Charities Atlanta, a social services nonprofit. It received $3.5 million.

The archdiocese gave $10,000 each to 110 recipients — various parishes and other organizations across the archdiocese. The archdiocese encompasses all of North Georgia, comprising 99 parishes and missions in 69 counties, and includes more than 1 million Catholics.

Money kept by the archdiocese was used to demolish Mitchell’s home and build a new one for the archbishop at a total cost of more than $2.2 million, according to the archdiocese.

Flanked by tall pine trees and stately magnolias, the home features two stories of red brick and soaring windows. With four bedrooms, four full baths and three half-baths, “everything in the new house sort of mimics” his old house, Gregory said.

“If I had to find a new house,” Gregory said, “why not use the property at Mitchell’s?”

The remaining $7.5 million from Mitchell’s estate went to Christ the King. About $1.9 million will be spent to buy the archbishop’s former home on West Wesley Road, a 1920s Mediterranean-style house a few block away, and an estimated $292,000 will go toward its renovation. The parish wants to add extra suites to convert it into an eight-bedroom structure with just as many bathrooms. Construction could begin next month, weather and Atlanta permit officers willing.

Relocating the priests “is a conversation that’s been going on for 20 years,” said McNamee, who became rector at Christ the King in 2009.

In its short-term plans, the parish also wants to renovate the Hyland Center, a gymnasium built 50 years ago. Longer-term, it proposes demolishing the old rectory on the church’s grounds to make way for other structures.

To date, the archdiocese and Christ the King have committed $4.4 million toward the building and renovation of new quarters for the archbishop and senior clergy, or nearly 30 percent of Mitchell’s bequest.

Joseph Mitchell’s gift is not a one-time gesture, either. His late aunt’s estate continues generating royalties, which last year amounted to about $116,000. Half that — $58,000 — is given to Eugene Mitchell’s family; an identical sum goes to the archdiocese.

“Truly,” said McNamee, “it’s an amazing blessing.”

Parishioners appeal to archdiocese

Two years ago when Mitchell’s bequest suddenly made the archdiocese’s building plans possible, the Catholic Church in Rome was mired in allegations that it had covered up sexual abuse by priests and engaged in corrupt banking practices.

But Francis’ ascension last year has dramatically altered the Roman Catholic landscape. Francis, a Jesuit, has vowed internal reforms at the Vatican and has called on the world’s Catholics to redouble efforts to aid the poor.

Francis became the first pope in 110 years not to live in the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square and has made numerous public showings of his humility, including washing the feet of prisoners.

Laura Mullins, a 36-year member at Christ the King, interpreted the Pope’s preaching as a long-awaited call to action. On Jan. 20, she organized the meeting with Gregory and McNamee, and joined others in urging the men to sell the Habersham Road house, using cash from that sale to help Atlanta’s poor. The archbishop, they said, could return to his old home.

The meeting lasted 90 minutes, said Mullins, and accomplished nothing. In an email, the archbishop told her that the archdiocese and parish would continue with their plans.

Mullins, sitting at her kitchen table five weeks after that meeting, managed a wry smile.

“Outside of Sea Island, they are living in the most exclusive neighborhoods in Georgia,” said Mullins. “That money could be used in so many different ways to help so many people.”

Others share her concerns. In a series of recent interviews with the AJC, Catholics — members of Christ the King as well as those from other parishes — cited Francis as the example local leaders should emulate. The pontiff drives an old Ford and eschews formal trappings. Sometimes, he takes the bus.

“When you are in politics or religion, you live differently,” said Marci Naurer-Nunnery, a Christ the King parishioner. “And you don’t offend people by living too high on the hog.”

“Parish priests, living in a mansion in Buckhead, sounds ridiculous to me,” said Ann Angulo, 55, who has attended Christ the King for 20 years. “It’s extravagant.”

The archdiocese's building projects remind church-management expert Charles Zech of a separate controversy surrounding the retirement plans of Archbishop John J. Myers, head of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. Myers is building a 3,000-square-foot addition to his retirement home at a cost of $500,000. Infuriated parishioners say he's spending hard-earned cash that would be better spent for schools and impoverished parishes.

“Is the Archdiocese of Atlanta so well off that it can’t use that money for schools or social programs?” asked Zech, director of Villanova’s Center for the Study of Church Management. “What else could be done with that money?

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Zech noted, recently sold the archdiocese mansion for $10 million, and the archbishop moved into smaller digs. “He sold it not only for the money, but to set an example,” Zech said.

Archdioceses need to be prudent in their spending following high-profile sex scandals, said Frank Butler of Washington. He’s founder of Drexel Philanthropic Advisors, a nonprofit that creates philanthropic partnerships, advises donors and provides other services.

“It’s not like the church has a lot of social capital to begin with,” he said. “I think these things … rub people the wrong way.”

Michael Kelleher feels the rub. A member of Our Lady of the Assumption parish, Kelleher calls the housing choices “opulent.”

“It just doesn’t pass the common-sense test,” said Kelleher, 70 and a retired U.S. Army brigadier general. “I’m not suggesting that these guys live in a hovel. What’s wrong with where they’d been living?”

Others defend the spending.

“The fact is, no one wants the priests to move off campus,” said Dave Fitzgerald, a member of Christ the King for four decades. “But you have to look at that piece of dirt (the rectory), and it’s that dirt that we need if we want to make a better use of our square footage.”

Gregory and McNamee appear confident that they’re doing what’s best, too.

“Where can you find a property (nearby) that can accommodate six priests?” asked McNamee.

Changing plans now, Gregory added, would be “a little awkward” — poor stewardship, too.

The home on West Wesley, the men said, will serve future rectors and priests for decades. And the new home on Habersham?

That property is expensive, Gregory said. It’s also the property of a higher power than he.

“I don’t own it,” he said. “But I know who does.”