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Unholy Plan? Proposal to Convert Church Property to Apartments Stuns South End Parish

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The proposed apartment complex  shown next to St. Anthony church
  • The proposed apartment complex shown next to St. Anthony church

By now, most people know it's tacky to break up via text message. This month a Catholic parish learned a similar lesson: If you're considering selling church property to a developer, tell your parishioners before they find out on social media.

For the last 55 years, Marie Boisvert, 73, has been a parishioner at the St. Anthony Church on Flynn Avenue. Her deceased husband was baptized there, as were the couple's two children. She lives two blocks away and, over the years, has helped organize minstrel shows, bazaars and covered-dish suppers to raise money for the parish.

So it was with some indignation that Boisvert read a Facebook post in late February, in which a neighbor described a plan to convert much of the church property into a four-story "family housing project."

She calls the church complex a "part of our parish history, our neighborhood history, our family history. It's an extension of my home." The news, Boisvert added, "should not have come as a surprise from city hall and social media."

St. Anthony's sits on a two-acre lot off Pine Street. The church was built in 1902 with bricks salvaged from a Catholic church on Archibald Street. Many of its earliest parishioners were French Canadian workers at the Queen City Cotton mills in Burlington's Lakeside neighborhood. The building boasts a 158-year-old bell and four stained glass windows that were also taken from the older church. Its elegant windows and vaulted ceilings make walking inside "like going back in time," said Charles Catlett, an occasional churchgoer. Next to it are two buildings: the rectory and the parish hall. According to city records, the total property value is assessed at $2.3 million.

Now, the city's development review board is considering a proposal to raze the rectory and the parish hall — both of which are on the Vermont State Register of Historic Places — to construct an apartment complex with 52 units and 72 parking spaces.

The proposal was filed with the DRB on February 6, cosigned by Pizzagalli Properties and the Rev. Richard O'Donnell, better known as "Father Rich." O'Donnell is the pastor of a merged parish of St. Anthony's and Christ the King churches.

A round of notice letters the DRB sent to immediate neighbors had a swift and seismic impact in the South End, reverberating across kitchen tables and online. By now many residents have seen the architectural mock-ups, which show the church dwarfed by an L-shaped building and a sprawling parking lot.

O'Donnell said he regrets the way his parishioners heard the news — "I do feel bad I did not communicate that to the parish in a timely manner" — but he didn't think it made sense to share a plan that might not pan out. O'Donnell emphasized that selling the church to Pizzagalli is by no means a deal set in stone.

But it's no pie-in-the-sky plan, either. The Roman Catholic Diocese isn't exactly drowning in cash these days and has had to contend with other challenges, including a shortage of priests and a shrinking number of parishioners. The Christ the King-St. Anthony parish has bucked the latter trend — according to O'Donnell, there's actually been an uptick in people attending mass at the two churches since he took over last July; he estimated that about 1,000 people attend one of the six weekend masses held at the churches.

But that doesn't compensate for more than a decade's worth of declines, he added.

Renovating St. Anthony's is still an option, according to O'Donnell, but it comes with a price. "Whatever direction we go, financially, there are some very, very big concerns. Not only structural concerns in the building, but also the fact there's just the day-to-day maintenance that is costing the parish a considerable amount of money we don't necessarily have."

O'Donnell said he doesn't know yet what the renovation costs for all three buildings would be, but a preliminary estimate showed the church alone needs roughly $1 million in upgrades. He said he's been exploring both options — to renovate or sell — since late last fall. Once the plans are finalized, three committees, made up of parishioners, will review them and present them to the parish as a whole. After collecting their feedback, a proposal will go before the Burlington Diocese for its approval.

Selling the St. Anthony site would eliminate overhead costs, and the sale proceeds would be reinvested in the parish, according to O'Donnell. One possibility, he said, would be to send more money to the school at Christ the King, which he described as "thriving."

But that's little comfort to those who live close by St. Anthony's, for whom a massive apartment complex is a much less desirable neighbor than a quiet church.

"It's a big, ugly monstrosity," said Marylen Grigas, whose house is on the other side of Pine Street from St. Anthony's.

Despite O'Donnell's reassurances, many community members said they think it's a done deal, based on the level of detail in Pizzagalli's proposal. Margo Trotier's upstairs bedroom overlooks the church property. She's lived there for 22 years and said she loves her home and neighborhood. But after hearing the news, she said, "I just feel like running for the hills."

Trotier, a real estate agent, wasn't making an empty statement. Shortly after she learned of the development plan, she started printing out listings for available properties elsewhere in Burlington.

Pizzagalli's proposal calls for closing two of the three vehicle entrances on the current property, which would funnel all traffic onto Ferguson Avenue, a relatively quiet street that runs parallel to Flynn Avenue and perpendicular to Pine. The documents filed with the DRB state that "little change to traffic congestion is anticipated," but residents said such an influx of people will inevitably clog the streets. Grigas predicts traffic "pouring out onto Ferguson."

For neighbors, the concern isn't just about what may be coming. For St. Anthony parishioners — many of whom have attended mass there for decades and had connections to a school that closed in 1971 — the loss would be acutely personal.

The church has been a community hub for its non-Catholic neighbors, as well. A regular group plays basketball at the parish hall, and, on other evenings, there are dance and tae kwon do lessons.

"Shock," was the word most South End residents interviewed for this story used when describing their reactions, and the surprise was particularly acute among parishioners.

"I was disturbed that a proposal could go as far as this one has without the general population of the parish knowing about it," Boisvert said. Several other parishioners, who asked that their names be withheld, also said they were dismayed that O'Donnell hadn't told them ahead of time.

"It was like we didn't belong to the parish," said one longtime parishioner, who described the news as "heartbreaking."

O'Donnell, who has a reputation for forging deep connections with parishioners, said he would have done things a little differently had he known the city was going to send out letters. But he said it shouldn't have been a surprise. "I would have certainly said there were proposals out there, but I basically would have gotten up and said, 'Folks, we are continuing the discussion we've had for the last 15 years, and these are the options we are considering."

According to O'Donnell, there has been "extensive conversation for a number of years" about the possibility of selling St. Anthony's.

The DRB had initially scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for this week. But in the wake of the neighborhood outcry, Pizzagalli Properties postponed the forum until May 6.

Mary O'Neil, the city planner who did a preliminary review of the plan, echoed some of the concerns expressed by South End residents. "In sheer mass and volume," she wrote, "the proposed structure is startling."

O'Neil cited a number of areas in which the proposal conflicts with the "vision statements" in the city's Municipal Development Plan. Among them are the need for the city to "retain and enhance Burlington's historic buildings and architectural features" and to "maintain neighborhood proportions of scale and mass."

The city has made it clear it wants the St. Anthony's church to stay, according to Pizzagalli's development manager, Bob Bouchard. But his company hasn't figured out how to repurpose the place of worship. Neither has it determined what type of housing would be appropriate for the area, though he said market-rate apartments are most likely.

Bouchard said he plans to work closely with the parish to address people's concerns. He may be uniquely suited for that role — Bouchard is a member of the parish, and he was both baptized and married in the St. Anthony church. (O'Donnell said he chose the company not because of any connection to Bouchard but because Pizzagalli has worked with the diocese before.)

Pizzagalli has a tentative contract with the parish, according to Bouchard, and since the word got out, he's had plenty of inquiries from other developers interested in the property. Whether it's his company or another, Bouchard predicted that change is coming to the church. "It's not going to stay as it is. What the neighbors need to appreciate is the church is doing something," he said.

As strong as their ties to the church may be, St. Anthony's parishioners said they aren't blind to the times. They've seen their ranks dwindle. They know the church coffers are depleted. They know there's a need for more housing in Burlington.

They just didn't expect to see the writing on the walls of Facebook.

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