By Beverly S. McKenna’
The New Orleans Tribune

A recent headline in the city’s daily detailed that the Archdiocese of New Orleans is on track to sell some of its real estate holdings. It needs the financial liquidity that such a move would bring as allegations of sex abuse continue to amass. Bluntly, it needs cash to pay settlements to its victims.

To be sure, the reason the Archdiocese needs to unload property is distressing — a sex abuse scandal that has brought the Church to its knees while forcing it to file for bankruptcy. It should have never happened. But it did. And here we are.

That the Church must now sell some property is no cure all, but the Archdiocese will get the money to make restitution to its victims. And a few select businesses across New Orleans will be able to make investments in their communities.

Our Story

Unfortunately, if the manner in which the Archdiocese dealt with me and my family a few years ago in our attempt to purchase the Duchesne House, the rectory located at 2545 Bayou Road, is any indication, African Americans looking to purchase from the Archdiocese need not expect a fair deal.

The McKennas are longtime residents of the Seventh Ward with ties to Corpus Christi and St. Rose de Lima parishes. We are educators, business owners and activists intent on preserving and developing Bayou Road and the surrounding neighborhood while resisting gentrification in a manner that allows its authentic culture, history and heritage to prevail.  

Specifically, our involvement with this story stretches back to March 2019, when word was circulated that the Duchesne House located at 2545 Bayou Road was for sale.  As preservationists with the best interests of the historical inhabitants of the area in mind, we immediately reached out to those who handle real estate for the Archdiocese (Liz LaCombe and Dianne Collins) and expressed our interests in acquiring the property. We requested an in-person meeting (never granted) and also an inspection of the building with architect, Ray Manning, to assess the condition of the building (which was allowed).

We were aware of Alembic, the New York-based developers who purchased the church and several auxiliary buildings on Columbus Street, one of which was subsequently leased to Waldorf School—a prestigious, private school with a largely Caucasian enrollment, whose flagship location is in Uptown New Orleans. 

Despite and, perhaps, because of the gentrification encroaching in our community, we stepped forward to purchase Duchesne House so as to expand our efforts to empower small Black businesses and spur economic opportunity for all. We had hoped that the Catholic Church, in the interest of fair and equitable representation of Black people, would consider us as good contenders for purchase of the rectory.

But that was not to be.

The short story is that after several months, beginning June 5, 2019, of expressing our interest in purchasing Duchesne while doing due diligence with our architect and responding to the request for a detailed proposal from FR. John Hemelt of Our Lady of the Rosary Finance Council spelling out exactly how we intended to use the building, we submitted our offer to purchase for $700,000, which was the appraised value as presented by the Archdiocese. And then, on Sept. 19, 2019, we received another memo from Liz LaCombe requesting an update on details for acquiring property. Again, we complied with the request, submitting a formal proposal on October 1, 2019, with details that included: 

1. Our due diligence will be completed by Oct. 4, 2019.

2. Closing date 45 days after acceptance 

3. $250,000 down with balance due financed by a bank at a rate of 6.5 percent (contingent on building inspection).

Plenty of Regret 
But No Real Reasons

To our surpise, only two weeks after we had submitted our formal proposal and four months after our negotiations had begun, we received the Archdiocese’s “letter of regret”. This letter came with no explanation. It was, instead, a flat-out rejection of our proposal. 

We understand that the Catholic Church, as a private entity, can sell its property to whomever it chooses. However, it regrettably appears that, in this circumstance, the Catholic Church is just what observers have long claimed — dismissive, disingenuous, duplicitous, and perhaps even racist, in its dealings with Black people.

In former times, we might have allowed the blatant disrespect to pass without comment; but in the midst of national turmoil and upheaval emanating from deeply seated, unmitigated, institutionalized racism, we refused to accept such treatment with no response on our part, especially considering that, in this case, the institution is the highly revered Catholic Church.

We immediately contacted Archdiocese representatives, intent on finding out why we were suddenly dismissed from consideration when the initial response for proposal was met with urgent interest. We wanted to know how our submission could have been improved. There were no answers. The administrators in charge would not even reveal the winning purchaser or the final cost of the property. 

Later, we learned the sale took place on July 31, 2020 – a full nine months after our offer was rejected. The property was sold to 2545, LLC, a group of white businessmen. Not only was their use of the property suspiciously similar to the proposal we submitted, but we were shocked to learn that they had acquired it for $660,000 – a full $40,000 less than we offered.  

We questioned the Church’s willingness to sell the property for less than we offered even as it faced bankruptcy.

Forty thousand dollars may seem like a small figure to some, particularly when it comes to real estate deals in the high six figures. And it is true that the Archdiocese is free to sell its property to whomever it wishes for whatever price it is willing to settle. But let’s get serious. It has recently been reported that the Archdiocese is now informing its parishioners, along with parents, students and staffs at its schools that they must all sacrifice to assist the Church in handling the financial fallout of this sex abuse scandal. 

Everybody has to pay. And that does not sit well with us when we consider that the Archdiocese rejected an offer for the rectory on Bayou Road that would have allowed it to make an additional $40,000 on the property. That makes no sense to us unless the Church was simply set on not selling to Black buyers. 

And if we are right, that the church would now consider taking resources away from the schools and churches that serve children like the ones hurt by members of its clergy instead of getting the most money it could for the sale of Duchesne House regardless of race of the buyer is beyond a travesty.

Given the turn of events, we could not help but feel slighted and marginalized in our own community.

I disclosed my concerns to Archdiocese officials over how our offer was handled and the disregard in which we were treated, hoping it would prompt the Archdiocese leaders to examine the Church’s practices through a lens of racial equity and to earnestly consider how the Archdiocese can move forward in a way that challenges and changes deeply entrenched bias and institutional racism.

Teetering on a Thin Line

That didn’t happen. 

Instead, I was informed in a telephone call from Archbishop Gregory Aymond himself that the Archdiocese’s attorneys had reassured him that the Church had done “nothing illegal” by rejecting our offer and selling to someone else for less money. 

“Nothing illegal?” How about immoral, unfair, disingenuous and plain old bad business? Again, we offered more money for the bulding than the winning bidders. It seems, to us, that race was the ONLY difference and the deciding factor. Of course, the Church will deny our conclusion. But it has not given us any other explanation, except that it had done “nothing illegal.” 

Perhaps the Archbishop was advised by his attorney that the Archdiocese had not broken any laws in not selling the property to us because the building was not being sold as a residential dwelling. We all know that the Fair Housing Act, in fact, makes it illegal to not sell or rent a home to someone based on race. 

Meanwhile, racial equity issues in the ownership, sale and value of commercial property abound across the country. In fact, a 2022 report by the Brookings Institute notes that the gap in commercial property ownership is just as disturbing as the homeownership gap, with only 3 percent of Black households owning non-residential commercial property, while 8 percent of white households do. And when Black people do hold commercial real estate investments, their holdings are much smaller than their white counterparts — with holdings valued at $3,600 on average for Black investors compared with almost $34,000 for whites. 

As the Church seeks to unload real estate to generate cash to settle claims with sexual abuse victims, we would like to remind its leaders that mincing words and obfuscating . . . unsteadily balancing itself between   “right” and “wrong” . . . between “just” and “unjust” . . .  figuring out what it can get away with, cover up or sweep under the rug so long as it is on the right side of what is legal, even if barely so, is exactly why the Archdiocese of New Orleans is in the situation it now finds itself.

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