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New Jersey Bishop's New Mansion Draws Criticism

3:26 PM, Jan 3, 2014   |    comments
Photo: Cherry Hill N.J. Courier-Post
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Phil Dunn, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post

WOODBURY, N.J. -- Catholics in South Jersey were quick to point out Jesus was born in a manger not a mansion after reports the Camden diocese had plunked down half a million dollars for Bishop Dennis Sullivan's new digs here.

The 6,000-square-foot mansion was once the residence of Rowan University President Donald Farish. Sullivan, who took over leadership of the diocese after Bishop Joseph Galante retired in 2012, sought the new home for meetings with church donors and dignitaries.

Before coming to Camden, N.J., Sullivan, 68, worked as vicar general and auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York. He lived and worked in midtown Manhattan, in a particularly posh neighborhood near Rockefeller Center.

Sullivan, whom Pope Benedict appointed Jan. 8, 2013, and who was installed Feb. 12, now lives in an apartment off the St. Pius X Retreat House in Blackwood, N.J.

"This is a joke," said John Miller of Deptford, N.J. "Jesus was born in a stable.

"We have a rectory right there in Camden, the headquarters of the diocese, where the bishop could live. If I'm a benefactor, I want to give money to a humble man, not because he is throwing this lavish affair."

Ron Johnson of Woodbury said the diocese should have used the $500,000 to help restore churches and schools that have closed. From 2008 to 2010, the diocese shrunk its number of parishes by more than 40%, going from 124 to about 70. The diocese, made up of New Jersey's six most southern counties, has about a half million Catholics but fewer than a quarter go to Mass regularly.

"Amazing that the Catholic Church has money for this extravagant home despite the apparent financial crisis that has led to the closing of many Catholic schools (including St. Patrick's in Woodbury) and several churches," he said.

Frank H. Stewart built the mansion in 1908. The three-story gray stone house, whose listing mentioned five bedrooms and six bathrooms has been described as one of the grandest homes in this city of about 10,000 about 7 miles south of Camden. The house on more than an acre of land also has a three-car garage, game room and in-ground pool.

The diocese purchased the home Dec. 23 from Rowan University for $500,000. The public university bought the property, midway between campuses in Glassboro, N.J. and Camden, for Farish in 2000 but put it on the market when he left there in June 2011 and it has been vacant since.

"The diocese purchased the property because the bishop needs a residence and space to hold meetings with potential donors and benefactors," diocesan spokesman Peter Feuerherd said. "It will well pay for itself and more. We realize others may have a different opinion, but that was the rationale behind the purchase."

Rutgers-Camden professor of religion Stuart Charmé noted that Pope Francis has set a tone for the church regarding concern for the poor and service to them. And the pontiff personally has shunned most of the amenities of his office.

"So others in the church need to be particularly careful about any actions that might give the impression church leaders live lives of luxury paid for by the donations of common people," the professor said. "At a time when there is a greater disparity in wealth between those at the top and those at the bottom, it would be disappointing, to say the least, if that phenomenon were also found in religious institutions."

But Kevin Fine took to Facebook to say he thought the transaction was a good deal.

"The Catholic Church sure knows how to do its real estate!" he wrote.

The Cooper Street mansion originally was listed for about $800,000. Feuerherd also noted the diocese will finalize the sale of its Blackwood property for $395,000 in early January.

The diocese will have to furnish the Woodbury mansion, and Feuerherd was unsure if the property would be tax exempt. According to property records, taxes are $31,000 annually.

"I'm guessing the Diocese of Camden is going to plead poverty and get tax-free treatment," Woodbury's Johnson said. "If so, another nail in the coffin of my hometown."




Cherry Hill N.J. Courier-Post

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