Fiscal Mismanagement: $20 Million Debacle Part 2

Our post from yesterday, “Fiscal Mismanagement: $20 Million Debacle” about the out-of-control renovation project at St. Cecilia’s in Boston has sparked a lot of emails and comments.  Do take a moment to read the comments, especially some heartfelt comments from several priests. We had a few weather-related issues today that kept us from blogging, and are just now getting to share Part 2.

Just to be sure everyone is on the same page, as we wrote yesterday, St. Cecilia in Boston had $14 million in the bank from a previous land sale, embarked on what was supposed to be a $13-14 million renovation project but never raised money for the project beforehand, and hit construction cost overruns that have put the total project costs at as much as $20 million by the time the project is finished (leaving them as much as $6 million in debt). They are just now launching a capital campaign to hopefully raise $2 million, while at the same time the parish is running a $250,000 operating deficit from 2009-2011 .  Oh, we forgot to mention, the project had oversight from the Office of the Chancellor in the Archdiocese of Boston and his staff experts, and the pastor of St. Cecilia, Fr. John Unni, is good friends with Chancellor, Jim McDonough.

If Ricky Ricardo of “I Love Lucy” were witnessing this, one can just imagine him saying in a loud angry voice, “Jim, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!”

Lest all of the details about the debacle at St. Cecilia’s distract from the main issues, allow us for a moment to remind you of the key things that make this noteworthy–not just for this particular project, but also for any parish council member and pastor who has a project to undertake elsewhere in the archdiocese:

  1. Cost: Why has the cost run over by as much as $2 million to $6 million?  How did the price for the project get so high?  Who provided oversight and who is accountable? What are the consequences for those who let this happen and approved it?
  2. Decision to approve spending $20 million on this project: Why was this project deemed a good use of $20 million (besides the fact that the parish had $14 million in the bank from a recent land sale)? Demographically, is this a location with a strong Catholic population or the potential to attract a strong Catholic population?  What other alternatives are nearby to serve Catholics?  Was this church  ever on a list of possible parish closures, or should it have been? At a time when every dollar matters–and certainly every $1 million matters–why exactly was this project approved by the Chancellor and the Cardinal? Who approved it–the Chancellor?  The Finance Council?  The Cardinal?
  3. Contractors and Vendors: Who were the contractors used? Who chose them? Are any of them friends of Jack or Jim? Why are only a tiny number of contractors allowed to bid on significant construction in parishes? And why are parishes not allowed more freedom in determining who they use if a firm they wish to use is established, competent and reputable?

The project was originally described in May of 2009 as follows: Phase 1: Rebuild the Rectory, to code; Phase 2: Renovation of Lower Church; and Phase 3: Improvements to Upper Church (not to exceed $800,000). In 2009, the costs were estimated by the Renovation Committee for all 3 phases at $13 million. A figure of $10 million was published in the Boston Courant when they went out to get appropriate city and neighborhood approvals.

Here is what the church and adjacent parish hall looked like before the project (note: the rectory being renovated is actually in the left tower, as evidenced by the windows, which are unusual for a church tower):

The adjacent parish hall on the right side of the church, built in 1917, was in poor interior condition yet was generating $80,000 annually in rent to local organizations.  It was demolished to allow for a handicapped-accessible entrance, and that source of rental income is now gone.  Here is an artist’s rendition of what it is to look like.

Fast forward to fall of 2010.  Even though the archdiocese has provided oversight for dozens upon dozens of school and parish renovation projects (including everything from building demolitions to pointing of bricks to church renovations and restorations), and even though they should know how to get 3 independent bids for every major job, and even though there should be skilled people who know very well by now what kinds of surprises to anticipate in construction projects and how to plan for overages, and even though there are skilled people who know you raise money if needed before such a project, not afterwards, this project proceeded–and ran over, by A LOT.

Here is the detailed assessment of the cost overruns shared in the parish council minutes of September 2010:

“As has been the case during the whole project, there have been unforeseen conditions to be dealt with:  the tower was in much worse condition than originally anticipated, and the rectory basement fix, city code, issues, etc.”

How were the contractors chosen, and by whom? Surely a capable contractor with appropriate oversight from the Archdiocese, including the experts on the Chancellor’s director-level staff (who now are paid in sum total about $1.3 million) should have anticipated city code issues.  Did the long-standing Boston city codes abruptly change mid-stream in the project or something? What controls were written into the agreement to protect and limit the church’s exposure to cost overruns? And when a project runs over by millions of dollars, are people not entitled to a somewhat more detailed listing of reasons than whatever is meant by “issues, etc.”?

We are told, but have not confirmed, that once the restoration of the church ran over budget, they removed the new HVAC system to save costs.  Then other “unforeseen” issues arose, like the pointing turned out to be more extensive than originally thought.

Despite a staff including the Chancellor and his directors now costing $1.3 million, plus their direct reports who are supposed to be able to provide oversight for such projects, here we sit nearly 5 years after the Chancellor arrived with aging buildings across the archdiocese and no credible, active building or property management commission (e.g. one with priests/pastors and non-pastors,  lay experts in heating/ventilation/air-conditioning systems, and staff with specialization in buildings and parish finance) overseeing such initiatives from initial proposals to completion. The person responsible for real estate on the Chancellor’s staff was a former loan officer with him at the Abington Savings Bank and objectively knows nothing about property management. Several of the staff skilled in building/facilities management were laid off in recent years (as part of the Chancellor’s supposed magnanimous efforts to cut heads in his department to free budget for more six-figure salaries) and never replaced.

Coincidentally, someone recently emailed us these pictures of what the new entrance looks like now from the front and rear.

(Anyone else wondering what they will do with all that valuable open space behind the entrance that was generating $80K/year in rent before?)

We are told the project is about 75% completed and running around $16-$17 million.  When Phase 3 is finished we hear it could cost $20 million, but we have not confirmed that number. (If we are mistaken, we encourage someone from St. Cecelia’s to contact us and we will correct the numbers).  The parish started out with $14 million in the bank, and could be in debt as much as $6 million when finished.

This is WITH oversight by the Chancellor’s office.

The whole thing reeks of mismanagement and corruption from end to end.  Whoever is responsible for this fiasco needs to be held accountable for this.

As you can see from the comments, priests and laity are disgusted when they hear news like this.  Here is what one pastor wrote:

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 am getting to the point of just wanting out of it all.

Cardinal O’Malley, Fr. Erikson, and Jim McDonough–are you all happy that this is what you are bringing about in the Boston presbyterate?

If this is not heart-breaking enough, the corruption and mismanagement remain in contracting. At least when Gov. Deval Patrick saw the corruption in the state Parole Board, he fired the whole board.  But here in the Boston Archdiocese, the leadership carries on with business as usual as though everything is going just fine at 66 Brooks Drive. Ongoing mismanagement in contracting is the topic for yet another post shortly.

Anyone reading this is still planning a donation to the Catholic Appeal?  If so, allow us to offer a few words of advice.  Ready for this?  Grab a pen and a piece of paper.  Here is the advice:

Do not give to the Catholic Appeal at this time.  Redirect whatever you may have considered giving for now to your local parish or another good Catholic cause like any of these. We do not have a perfect answer for how you can earmark a contribution to your local parish and ensure it is not “taxed” by the archdiocese this year, but talk to your pastor.  Ask him if you can earmark the donation and have it used to pay a specific bill, like the heating/utility bill, or a youth group expense, or musician stipends.  Giving to a “Grand Annual” parish collection might also shelter the money from the voracious spending appetites at 66 Brooks Drive.

ps. By the way, if any pastors are reading this, drop us a line at bostoncatholicinsider(at) or fill out our Contact Us form (anonymously if you like) and let us know if you have had limitations placed on you by the archdiocese in hiring your choice of contractors. How often has a particular contractor been forced on you (eg. Parent, McLaughlin & Nagle for audits, Nolan Waterproofing, others) by the archdiocese?

22 Responses to Fiscal Mismanagement: $20 Million Debacle Part 2

  1. TheLastCatholicinBoston says:

    Great stuff,
    It reminds me of a trip to Ireland. As a child my elderly relatives showed me the ‘churches in the bushes’ a few spots in the countryside near a stream, behind a wall, in a cave. The sacrifice of the alter was offered there years before. It was in an earlier time when there was a bounty on Priests heads and Irish children were pitch-forked for sport by enemies of The Faith.

    How far we have come dear Sean. $ 20 million churches won’t save us. It is the Modernists under your nose that persecutes us today.

    The great strategists ‘peece makers’ sowing seeds of confusion, error and disharmony. They waive off church teaching as out-dated and irrelevant as they make deals with sworn enemies of the church and the demonic.

    The countless un-canonized priest Saints of Ireland of an earlier persecution cry out. “What in God’s name are ya Doing Sean? Shave off that queer beard as mortification for the murdered babies in America!” “And while your at it, kick that harlequin Hehir’s sorry butt back across the river to the Crimson Vatican” “Straighten up, the time to embrace is long gone, get to work like the man God made you!”

    Saint Joseph ‘terror of demons’ guide and protect us.

    And may God bless Michael Voris.

  2. anna says:

    It looks like a Wendy’s hanging off the side of the building. Is that where they bake the invalid matter?

  3. Chris says:

    Contrast this with the stylish and reverent renovation of St. Mary’s in Waltham under the able direction of its pastor…
    I understand Cardinal Sean was seen to tear up at David Thorp’s funeral. Would that he took notice of the anguish of the many who give their all to serve him still but who are demoralized. Perhaps on this “Catholics Come Home” weekend Cardinal Sean will open his eyes and rededicate himself to his mission of administering the archdiocese, not outsourcing that administration.

    • Jerry O'Sullivan says:

      Tragically, Cardinal Sean-O has failed to realize all these churches in Boston were built by the blood,seat and tears of our immigrant ancestors(mine from Ireland.) Sean-O -has laid off may lay workers,closed parishes, scuttled the clergy retirement program,squander millions of dollars,cooked the books and hired public relations spinners. What a wonderful achievement for a son of St. Francis.

  4. Correction says:

    Some of these posts, even those from priests, need some correction. St. Cecilia’s actually does have a LOT of families, babies, baptisms, and weddings. If you think it is just a dusty old parish, you’d be mistaken. St. Cecilia’s draws from many Boston neighborhoods since things are so bad at both the Cathedral and St. Joseph’s. Stop on some Sunday and you’ll see a pretty full church with very few senior citizens. You’ll also get to see the “Father John Show” complete with made-up prayers and a thirty minute homily. It “looks like” a Catholic Church …

    • A Priest says:

      I don’t want to see the Father John Show…I want to see Jesus Christ…If the parish is so full on Sundays why are they running in the red and not the black. This parish should not have wasted 14 million of its own money plus another 6 million of OUR money as a memorial to the Father John Show. What a sad state of affairs.

    • DBP says:

      One of the problems – and granted, it’s only one of many – that the archdiocese is having to deal with is the phenomenon of the wandering parishioner.

      Let’s face it, the fact that there are so many parishes accessible to folks these days makes it “a buyer’s market;” even we priests have privately encouraged people to find a place that they feel they are being fed rather than abandon the Church because their own parish is unappealing. And this may, in fact, be a stop-gap measure to keep people in communion. But the long-term danger is this: how does the archdiocese plan and manage finances if the viability of a parish is based upon something so ephemeral as the personality of an individual priest?

      No doubt there are many people from in and around Boston who are charmed by Fr. John Unni. There are several other priests very much like him all around the archdiocese (think Fr. Chris Hickey in Hanover, at Jim McDonough’s home parish). Each has a “following” and has increased the participation (and perhaps the revenue) of the parish to which they are currently assigned. I’m certain that the folks who attend those parishes feel they are being fed. Why, you ask, should parishes such as these be considered for closing?

      The answer is this: when a priest such as this is transferred or leaves the parish, the parish inevitably declines, as those who were magnetically drawn to him move on to somewhere else to be fed in the manner they desire. And only the territorial parishioners remain. And the multi-million dollar renovations, only done because the former pastor was attracting people to that church, are now wasted on a half-empty building.

      The reality of the parish system is that it was always designed to serve the needs of those who live within its boundaries, NOT others who are dissatisfied with their own parish. And the system still works in the parts of the world and our own country where people are not inclined to attend Mass anywhere but their home parish.

  5. Reluctant Donor says:

    I agree with Anna, the handicapped entrance or whatever it is at the side of the building, is awful. I realize it’s not complete, but even in the artist’s rendering of the final product it looks misplaced, almost like a T station built by the low bidder. $20M? I wouldn’t give you 20 cents for that!

    Contrast with the Thomas Crane Public Library (1882) a National Historic Landmark in Quincy Center, noted for it’s architecture by H.H. Richardson. A 56,000 square foot addition by Mayor Jim Sheets in 2001, designed by Boston architects Childs, Bertman, and Tseckares was seamless, faithful to Richardson’s award winning original design. Today it’s one of the nicest public buildings on the South Shore, if not the whole state. If St. C’s needed to be done (I’m not convinced), why not compliment what’s there?

  6. Mary Reilly says:

    I agree with Anna and Reluctant Donor about the design of the handicapped entrance. I’m not versed in architecture and construction, but it does look like an MBTA station–so out of place with the older construction of the church. Wouldn’t it have been less costly to just match the old look and facade than to pay some high-priced architect to come up with this modern architecure whatchamacallit that is a mismatch for the church? As I understand it, they spent $20M to tear down the old parish hall, put in a handicapped entrance, renovate downstairs below the church to make it a new parish hall, make minor improvements in the main church (pews, floors), repoint bricks, aand renovate the old rectory. Doesn’t make sense why that all couldn’t have been done for half the cost or less. Has “gross mismanagement” written all over it.

  7. Correction says:

    Well, Mary, we have no idea how much it costs to rewire these old places and install proper fire protection, etc. The front stairs were also dismantled and rebuilt so that they come down sideways from the top (check that out in the pics). I think some of us should stop by for a Sunday mass and see what we think about the place in person. Would be interesting to see what happens there in terms of liturgy. I bet it would be interesting…

    • Mary Reilly says:

      I admit I don’t know how much it costs to do rewiring and fire protection work. But now that you mention the stairs, I’m now wondering whether tearing them down and rebuilding them in a different configuration was something that was NECESSARY, or a nice-to-have. If it was a nice-to-have, I wonder how much extra that cost, and if the stair rebuilding was a nice-to-have that makes me wonder how many other nice-to-haves they threw into the $20M project. Was the fancy modern architecture MBTA-like design for the handicapped entrance necessary, or also a nice-to-have, and how much less would a more modest approach have cost?

  8. Little Red Hen says:

    Isn’t that just the trouble, though — the fact that any pastor may attract a “following”, owing to his personality or how faithful he is (or isn’t) to tradition. I attend the Latin Mass at a parish in the next town, and I know that many who attend that Mass with me come from many miles away to do so. They are willing to make the sacrifice of time and effort because the beauty and reverence of the liturgy mean so much to them. But it shouldn’t be necessary to have to travel 30 miles to attend a traditional Mass…

  9. Regular Reader says:

    Boston has a long and glorious history of support for the missionary work of the Church; Perhaps you could suggest that readers continue that tradition of bringing the Gospel of Jesus to those who haven’t heard it by donating to the Propagation of the Faith:

    • Jerry O'Sullivan says:

      That’s right Fr. Rodney Copp is doing great work!

      • q says:

        Uhhhhh… Fr Copp IS the Administrator responsible for the boondoggle of a rectory renovation at St James you just attacked the rector of the Cathedral for. Please get your facts straight.

      • q,
        I think you may be confusing “St. James the Greater” church in Boston with the ‘St. James Society.” Fr. Rodney Copp is the long-time pastor at St. Charles Borromeo in Waltham and he is also the archdiocesan director of the Pontificial Mission Societies. The Pontifical Mission Societies include the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Holy Childhood Association, the Society of St. Peter Apostle, and the Missionary Union of Priests and Religious. The St. James Society, or as it is known formally, the Missionary Society of Saint James the Apostle, is partnered with Fr. Copp’s Pontifical Mission Office.

        “Regular Reader” said that Boston has a history of support for the missionary work of the Church and suggested readers continue that tradition by donating to the Propagation of the Faith. Jerry O’Sullivan correctly said that Fr. Rodney Copp (of Waltham) who heads that office in Boston is doing great work for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. This same Fr. Rodney Copp of Waltham had nothing whatsoever to do with any renovations at St. James the Greater parish in Boston.

    • K&JSR says:

      I think confusing Copps. Fr THOMAS Copp was responsible for the St James renovation, not Fr O’Leary

    • q says:

      I stand corrected. Fr T Copp, not Fr R Copp; apologies to Fr Rodney C. Still is not Fr O’Leary as falsely alleged. I hope the person responsible will ALSO have the decency to apologize.

  10. Quality Guy says:

    how many other projects are underway ?
    do we have adequate personnel to handle oversight and advice ?
    BTW, at ANY salary ?

    the new Catholics Come Home Boston project has $400K in the bank,
    how many TV ads will that pay for ?? given that this weekend’s 2nd collection may not be too big

  11. […] Mismanagement and Corruption The extreme cold in Boston in recent days and situation of the $20 million debacle at St. Cecelia in Boston made BCI think about a few things relevant to all Catholics in Boston–especially […]

  12. Therese says:

    You know — St. Cecilia’s has regular open meetings about its financial situation and its renovations…why not just attend, and ask questions?

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