Fiscal Mismanagement: $20 Million Debacle?

Q. How does a parish go from having $14 million in the bank to being millions of dollars in debt within 12 months?

A. With the oversight of the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Boston.

According to the 12/24/2010 edition of The Pilot,

“St. Cecilia Church in the Back Bay reopened Dec. 12 after recently completing a major interior renovation. The church closed after Easter for a major overhaul that included new flooring, pews, painting and a redesigned sanctuary and entrance… The renovation continues with restoration of the attached rectory and redesign of the lower church into a parish center complex.”

What The Pilot did not report was the following:

  • The parish had $14 million in the bank from a previous land sale (11,000 square-foot adjacent parcel) before starting the renovation project
  • The pastor and parish council discussed raising money via a capital campaign in 2009 for what was then estimated at a $13 million project, but never did anything at the time
  • They hit construction cost overruns that have put the total project costs at the 75% completion point today at around $16-17 million, and it could hit $20 million by the time they are done
  • The parish is only now launching a capital campaign to hopefully raise $2 million
  • The parish is now borrowing money from the archdiocese to cover the cost overruns
  • The parish is running a $250,000 operating deficit from 2009-2011 ($120,000 in the red in 2009-2010 and $130,000 in the red for 2010-2011)
  • The project had oversight from the Office of the Chancellor in the Archdiocese of Boston and his staff “experts” in real estate and property management
  • The pastor, Fr. John Unni, is good friends with Chancellor Jim McDonough

The above are the objective facts. A parish goes from $14M in the bank to being as much as $6M in debt.  That is WITH the oversight of the Chancellor and his team (who collectively at the director-level or above are paid $1.3 million annually). The whole thing reminds BCI of the Beatles song, “With a Little Help From My Friends”

The project was originally described in May of 2009 as follows:

Phase 1: Rebuild the Rectory, to code; Rebuild roof; Perform necessary construction to make entire building envelope safe and secure (including, upgrade of all plumbing, energy and mechanical systems.).

Phase 2: Renovation of Lower Church.

Phase 3: Improvements to Upper Church (not to exceed $800,000).

It is estimated by the Renovation Committee that the cost of completing Phases 1 – 3 would be $13 million.

 For the record, in the Boston Courant, a Back Bay newspaper, the project was estimated at $10 million in late 2009.

Here is a comment from a reader on this same topic from January 1:

from the pews says:

January 1, 2011 at 11:23 pm

One must conclude there has been precious little oversight from the Archdiocese regarding the renovation at St. Cecilia Parish (Boston). With a pastor who openly proclaims he’s not a “rules and regs kind of guy” and who plays fast and loose with the Sacramental Rites of the Church as well as with Church doctrine, it is of no surprise there exists the inexplicable situation in which fund raising has been long delayed hoping to recoup millions in cost overruns. Where is there ANY oversight?

Meanwhile, St. Cecilia’s annual operating budget is reported to be over $250K in the RED at the end of FYE 2011! This is as reported on their very own website:

Yet the pastor takes frequent and extravagant vacations to tropical Islands and Europe.

I for one, am sick of average parishioners bearing the financial burdens of born of impropriety and ineptitude. We who sit in the pews are more than happy to give our hard earned money and precious time to further the wonderful ministries of the Church. However, it appears that no one at the Archdiocese asked simple questions in a timely fashion—questions rooted in everyday common sense: Why was no money raised before the project began? Why is the project now suddenly millions of dollars over budget?

No one is made accountable, yet it is the faithful parishioners who are saddled with millions in debt.

With the history of sex abuse scandals, the Church does not need to shoot itself in the foot with more financial impropriety and incompetence. It pains those of us who try to stay faithful to the Church and faithful to our local parishes, where our faith truly takes root.

NOTE: We acknowledge that the renovated upper church looks beautiful, at least from what we can see of the photos, we acknowledge the interior of the church hall was in bad condition, and we acknowledge the rectory in the left tower was also in bad condition. This post is not about whether there were physical needs at the church that merited work.  This post is highlighting that the project has been mismanaged and improperly overseen from start to finish.

The current Chancellor has been in his job nearly 5 years.  Does he have a team of skilled experts capable of providing oversight and guidance for projects like this, and able to support the facility needs of hundreds of aging buildings in need of HVAC system upgrades, maintenance and renovation? Or is neglect of this area and layoffs of skilled staff without adequate replacements costing the archdiocese and parishes tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year needlessly, or even up to millions?

We will have more details to share about the project tomorrow, including before and after photos, reported reasons for the cost overruns, and what could have been done to prevent them. Readers familiar with the project can feel free to post comments or send email to us using the Contact Us tab.

In the meantime, the underlying question remains: When will pastors and advisors all start telling Cardinal O’Malley the time has come to replace the current Chancellor and initiate a search for a new one using someone independent and objective who cares just about the mission of the Catholic Church in Boston?

32 Responses to Fiscal Mismanagement: $20 Million Debacle?

  1. Jerome O' Sulivan says:

    The Rector of the Cathedral of Holy Cross has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating St Pete’s in Cambridge, Holy Cross Cathedral Rector and believe it or not St. James the Greater Rectory in Boston (the rectory is 30 years old) with the blessings of the Chancellor!

    • q says:

      and did a wonderful job fundraising and getting the projects done UNDER budget

      • q says:

        Great job by Fr O’Leary at St Peter’s, which lead to his appointment to the Cathedral.

        Amazing job transforming the Cathedral, taking care of almost all deferred maintenance and turning it into a building capable of rich Parish and Ceremonial life. Except the major structural repairs, which cost what they cost, all has been done on a shoestring, and with ingenuity.

        St James – the rectory renovation was done for Bp Hennessey, and by the previous Administrator of the Parish. THAT may not be the wisest allocation of resources, but it was not the Rector.

  2. Boston priest says:

    Re the rector of the cathedral: how much money was spent on electronic bells for the cathedral when the place is lifeless. Bells are nice but they call people to a church that has virtually nothing going on. Wouldn’t that money have been better spent hiring a pastoral associate who has some creativity and life? That place would have been shuttered a long time ago if it wasn’t the cathedral.

    • q says:

      Re: bells, the answer is ZERO. $0. A donor asked the rector if they could fund bells, the answer was yes, cost to the Parish (except for a LOT of work by Fr O’Leary) and the Archdiocese, exactly ZERO, Nothing.

      Re: Pastoral Associates; at the Cathedral, they have been problems more than solutions in recent years. Yes, a motivated, Pastoral Associate or two might help create a more active and involved Parish life, but it has not happened yet in SPITE of the Rector’s best effort.

      • Jerry O'Sullivan says:

        A million dollars was donated to St. Peter’s Church in Cambridge for an endowment. Is that endowment intact?

      • q says:

        St Peter’s was in great shape when Fr O’Leary left. He has been gone almost 3 years, and much foolishness has ensued SINCE he left. Instead of insinuating, why don’t you ACTUALLY make a factual statement.

  3. doubting pastor says:

    I wonder if it is even legal to ‘tax’ a parish. Doesn’t that disturb the intention of the donor??? The donors are not putting money in the collection baskets to assist the fat cats of Brooks Drive. As a pastor, I am at wits end to keep my parish in the black, I am very much doubting that I will be a pastor next year as the stress and demands which this administration has placed upon the position is really not worth the time and energy I am putting into it. I fear that slowly the Cardinal and his staff are eroding my love and dedication to the priesthood in Boston as a parish priest. I love the Eucharist and celebrating the Sacraments, but am sick and tired of all the red tape now placed upon the position. Sadly, I getting to the point of just wanting out of it all.

    • Caren says:

      I will pray for you, Father that you are sent all the graces needed to persevere. The fact that you are discouraged to the point of wanting out must mean that you are one of the faithful shepherds that we, the faithful sheep, desperately need! You are not alone!

    • Sad says:

      Dear Doubting Pastor, You are called to serve and you are doing that. Don’t let the absurd behavior by a few allow you to question that calling or to leave it. I am confident that your parishioner cherish your presence and appreciate your sacrifices. Keep the faith.

  4. Sad state of affairs says:

    Doubting Pastor – I am not surprised to read your posting, but I am sad about it. There are good priests out there who love the Church, are dedicated to the people of God, who celebrate the sacraments faithfully and according to liturgical norms, and who are smart, hardworking and don’t deserve to labor in a diocese that takes them for granted, shows a lack of support, and is insensitive to their needs. Say what you want about Cardinal Law, but he knew his priests and seminarians. He celebrated funerals for his priests, and he celebrated Sunday mass at the cathedral (despite not even living there). This diocese is corrupt. We are grateful to priests like you. We are grateful to priests who love celebrating the sacraments, who love preaching intelligent and well prepared homilies, and who are not ashamed to be identified as priests. I fear what happens to newly ordained priests these days. Do they receive the support they need? What type of ongoing formation are they given? I wonder sometimes what attracts young men to priesthood in this diocese. We are grasping at straws, prone to nostalgia, afraid of change and afraid to stand up and speak the truth. Becoming ordained here is to be emasculated and made fearful of doing the right thing because of the potential for punishment. Just look at what happened to the priests who signed the letter calling for the resignation of Cardinal Law. It’s an old boy’s club and some priests are treated well because they are bringing in a lot of money or because they’re cute and other priests are just working stiffs. I’m sorry, Father, you desrve more.

  5. A Priest says:

    The fact of the matter is as a pastor I know I can’t spend above a certain amount without permission of the Archbishop so all this nonsense has been given the OK by the diocese.

    That being said the question should have been asked, why are we doing this? Others have said it and I agree, this parish should not exist, it is unnecessary and superfluous in the area of the Back Bay and just because the pastor is buddies with the chancellor is no reason to keep it open.

    20 million down the tubes…it is criminal.

    As a pastor it is my constant joy to celebrate the sacraments but running a parish has become a labor that sometimes seems like a burden that ain’t worth it.

    To all who think we should rise up and complain…it’s a nice idea but most of the brothers just want to get to senior priest status and get back to what drew them to the priesthood in the first place…celebrating the sacraments.

    I am only in my 40’s but feel like if I have to deal with this for the next 30 years I will really lose it. Sorry people of God but that’s how I feel.

  6. TheLastCatholicinBoston says:

    “St. Cecilia Church in the Back Bay”

    Ya, I’m sure there are a TON of young families at that parish…not

    The Faithful left here in Boston are prepared to attend Mass in a formally closed K-Mart, as long as the Mass is reverent and the Priest is a heterosexual.

    Welcome to the future.

    My advice to any clergy in Boston, is to study and offer the Latin Mass. The parishioners who will attend with reverence will ardently pray for you and give you a kidney or anything else if you simply ask for it.

    • q says:

      Yes, the Congregation at St Cecilia is large and largely young. Attendance and participation is NOT a problem. The particular project may not have been well managed, and it would be helpful if those involved posted the reasons for over-runs, and seemingly questionable design elements.

      • Jerry O'Sullivan says:

        I agree- St. Cecilia’s serves also college students.

      • q says:

        Latin Mass is not the answer. It is freely available in many Churches in the Archdiocese, and while expanding, will grow as the need grows, and good for those communities. It should not be forced on all.

  7. catholic Data Nerd says:

    Wow – There seems to be competition now with the PJP2 Catholic Academy for the worst “investment” of the modern Catholic era. I thought $70MM to build a school (or is it a monument to Jack Connors?) where there aren’t many Catholics anymore and where those that are Catholic can’t afford the school was bad. It feels like this is in the same league.

    This Scandal at St. Cecilia’s goes further than the Chancellor. The entire Finance Council should be relieved of their duties for letting this fiasco happen on their watch. Is there no fiscal restraint at all anymore, anywhere? Why would there not have been a capital campaign to ensure that “everyone sacrificed” a little bit for this community benefit.

    Did a project of this scope get the approval of a regional bishop (Hennessey), Vicar General (Erikson) and Cardinal O’Malley or did the Chancellor approve this without their input? If they were involved, they might be just as culpable as the Chancellor, the pastor and the finance council.

  8. […] post from yesterday, “Fiscal Mismanagement: $20 Million Debacle” about the out-of-control renovation project at St. Cecilia’s in Boston has sparked a […]

  9. Just Another Priest says:

    Father Unni has always been given everything he wants. The leadership of the Diocese has fallen “under the spell” of his charm. Doubting Pastor has it right. I don’t know any priest that doesn’t love the Holy Eucharist or celebrating the Sacraments, and getting involved with the lives of his parishioners, but we are valued more for how well we raise money, rather than if we are dedicated priests.
    Like my brother priest, I too, am wondering how much longer I can last. At the rate we are going, will there even be a Church left? We live alone, or with men we would never choose to live with. It’s not being a priest that is hard, it’s living it that is hard.
    So while some guys like Father Unni will continue to be treated well, the rest of us will continue to be overlooked.

  10. David Justen says:

    Keep in mind that some of the biggest donors to the archdiocese attend St. Cecilia’s. That explains why they would approve the project and why they think they can raise funds to complete it. This is also the reason the parish would not be closed, as well as the fact that the shrines and chapels are not parishes, as some others have pointed out.

  11. Tired of it all says:

    “Just Another Priest” is right. Fr. Unni is the golden child – the kept boy of the Boston hierarchy.It seems as though he can do no wrong. While the rest of us (priests) are struggling to make ends meet and keep our books in the black, he is over there erecting a monument. If this diocese had even reasonable leadership, he never would have been permitted to oversee that project.

  12. Jerry O'Sullivan says:

    Cardinal O’Malley has his golden boys and particular friendships i.e. Unni and O’Leary.

    Jim Carroll tells the story of the BU student showing up at Cardinal Cushing’s residence and being received personally by the Cardinal.

    Sean-O works in a fortress surrounded by security. Visitation at Brooks road requires clearance

    • Boston Priest says:

      You’re right, Jerry. Fr. Unni can break all the rules he wants, make up his own prayers at mass, use invalid matter and get away with it. Why? Why do you think? Take a look at Cecilia’s website and bulletin and you’ll note that there is no daily mass, no time for confessions, and very few funerals. Many of us are out here working ourselves into an early grave and others seem to have figured out a way to do very little. I love being a priest and am not complaining about my life, but it’s discouraging to know that there are priests who seem happy to avoid hard work and are still able to lead charmed lives.

      • Jerry O'Sullivan says:

        I am from Cambridge and was a dear friend of Fr. Bill Walsh who told all of his parishioner
        of his desire to develop an irremovable endowment for the parish which only an act of God and break it. It’s the last act for our beloved Priest Fr. Bill Walsh. You are right while I have direct knowledge of St. Peter’s. Io not know the deal at St. James or Holy Cross Cathedral. There is no insinuation regarding St. Peter’s-parishioners were overwhelmed by the spending that when on -it was very clear to all of us. It seems that creature comforts directed the improvement of the rectory at ST. P. The pastors first act was to replace the new shower and toilet which Fr. Walsh -ripping our because he needed a tub. You can ask anyone in this parish.

      • Jerry O'Sullivan says:

        My heart goes you to you Boston priest.

        it seems that some young priests like Unni are retired on active duty.

        Be assured we know the are many hard working
        and loving priests like you!

      • q says:

        When Fr O’Leary came to St Peter’s, the Parish, and more importantly, the School, were in poor but not critical shape. He spent a lot of money on the massive amount of deferred maintenance needed, and spent a LOT of money on the School. He also raised more than he spent, did everything under budget and put the Parish on the best financial footing it has had in 50 years. I don’t know what you are talking about.
        Also, the Archdiocese does not usually allow Parishes to have unbreakable “endowments”, so I don’t know what you or Fr Walsh were talking about. Sounds like nothing BUT talk.

  13. Joe Catholic says:

    I just have to echo several comments above about what appears to be special treatment of Fr. Unni by the hierarchy, while so many good priests work for thankless jobs for years.

    I had a strange experience at St. Cecilia’s a couple of years ago, invited by friends who told me how great Fr. Unni was. I got there, and couldn’t believe it was a Catholic Church. There were hundreds of people standing around the altar for half the mass, no Creed, lots of made up prayers interrupted by jokes and constant personal commentary. Very entertaining I guess but not a Catholic mass– I’m pretty sure it was invalid.

    I can confirm other previous comments about a young student population as the church was full of young people. This is refreshing and attractive on the surface, but I haven’t been back. This was all too strange for me.

    How does Fr. unni get away with all this? Does the Cardinal know what is going on there during “mass” no less how the $ is being spent there?? Or does the hierarchy turn a blind eye just because he can fill a large church–ask no questions? I just find the whole situation to be very weird.

  14. q says:

    Liturgically, Fr Unni may well break liturgical rules, and isn’t my favorite Priest, but a little balance, please!?!?!

    He brings in young students and professionals, and THAT is why his Mass practices are not interfered with. Probably not a great reason, but understandable. He gets results.

    The whole renovation post is also unhelpful. The project is way over budget. No information on WHY, or where (the building inspectors or Americans with Disabilities act could have escalated prices); no breakdown of expenses, without which the criticism is idle speculation.

    Is Fr Unni given a wide berth on finances, and did he fail to fundraise before starting? Yes, but the blog fails to mention WHY, even though it is pretty common knowledge. As Pastor of St Ann, he DID all of these things. They raised money FIRST, to do do renovations, then began them with a strict eye to budget. The Archdiocesan Development office then stabbed him in the back, designating St Ann for reconfiguration, when in the middle of renovations. All the people who gave and worked (Fr Unni’s contacts) can’t be asked again, because of the Archdiocese’s actions. The proceeds from the sale of St Ann to Northeastern also SHOULD have gone to St Cecilia’s, but the Archdiocese AGAIN stole all of the money to meet the central office’s Development goals. Now, when complaints about money come up, the issue is and should be what happened to the money the Archdiocese already stole.

  15. Q.,
    BCI regrets if you personally feel the renovation post is unhelpful, but many other readers did find it worthwhile, so you are in the minority. The focus of the post was primarily on the mismanagement of the project. The parish went from having $14M in the bank to being several million dollars in debt. Is there any question that situation could have been avoided with better planning and oversight? Records show their parish council discussed fundraising beforehand, but it is not clear why no advance fundraising was done. A review of parish council minutes and bulletins reveals little mention of why the project ran way over budget. The provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act are well established as is the City of Boston building code. The archdiocese should have a lot of experience under their belts in project management and all matters related to renovating a church, and proper oversight was lacking. BCI is not the “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe with huge amounts of time to investigate such matters deeply. If you would like a deeper investigation than this blog is able to provide, please see if you can get the Globe on the issue.

    • q says:

      Unhelpful in the sense that the column promises to document financial mismanagement, and then does NOT. Yes, overspending, but (frustratingly, as interest in IF is there) BCI then has to admit that when sources are consulted (Parish council, etc….) , nobody actually knows anything.

      The comments seem to add little except to malign Fr Unni’s liturgical sense (probably warranted) and begin scandalous and unfactual inuendo against good Priests.

      Interest, yes. Facts, no.

      • Q,
        Welcome back! BCI can go just so far in the level of detail we are able to research and cover, and we do not think the column promised anything that it did not deliver on. More than several thousand people read our columns on the St. Cecilia situation and you are the only complaint.

        The opening sentences of any of our posts tell what we will discuss. As we said before, the parish went from having $14M in the bank to being several million dollars in debt, and the archdiocese should have sufficient experience in project management and church renovations to have prevented this from happening.

        This is the only public forum where this debacle is aired and where people can publicly discuss it. Readers who form opinions about specific blog posts should distinguish between what is written in the blog post by BCI and what is said by readers who comment. The two are often very different.

  16. q says:

    For what it is worth, I asked several Priests who ARE good at managing projects what commonly escalates the costs of projects, and coincidentally at the top of their lists was having to use Archdiocesan project managers and contractors. Most said it adds about 30% to the cost of projects.

    Not a Scientific survey, but if the St Cecilia project was estimated at $14m, THEN was forced to use the incompetent people at Braintree and their favored contractors, that would account for about $4m of the $6m.

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