By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published April 22, 2014
ATLANTA—An unprecedented meeting involving three councils of people who regularly advise Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory resulted in his announcement April 5 that he will vacate the new archbishop’s residence in early May and the property will be sold.
Archbishop Gregory listened and then, shortly after the meeting ended, announced in a press release that he had decided the archdiocese will sell the Habersham Road residence where he has lived for a few months and “invest the proceeds from that sale into the needs of the Catholic community.”
A small committee is now actively looking for a new place for the archbishop to live, according to Pat Chivers, archdiocesan communications director. She said Archbishop Gregory asked for their assistance to evaluate possible sites in light of public criticism that the Habersham Road residence was too large and too costly.
People who attended the April 5 meeting—members of the Council of Priests, Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and Finance Council—said opinions were strong and were divided on what course should be taken.
Father Henry Atem, vice chairman of the Priests’ Council, said, “There was quite a diverse set of opinions in the room, but the majority leaned in favor of selling the house.”
Asked what he thought of the decision, Father Atem said, “I think it truly reveals the character of the archbishop. The people he serves are his priority; he sets them over everything else and takes his responsibility as chief shepherd seriously. It shows he’s a bishop who listens.”
The archbishop had convened the Saturday morning meeting at the Chancery in Smyrna.
In the press release, Archbishop Gregory said he made the decision “after consultation with the members who were available to attend … and hundreds of well-meaning parishioners of differing points of view—some who sent written observations—as well as my own personal reflection and prayer.”
He thanked Catholics who voiced their criticisms of the new residence, some saying it conflicts with the direction set by Pope Francis.
“I want to thank those parishioners whose prayers, counsel and concern brought this issue to light and ensured that their archbishop was properly attuned to the important symbolism of simple actions and the challenges faced by many of the faithful in the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” he said.
He continued, “We are now at the close of the Lenten season preparing for Easter. I pray for the peace of our Lord to be in our hearts, in our families, and in our world.”
The new residence was built on property left to the archdiocese by the late Joseph Mitchell, nephew of author Margaret Mitchell. The $2.2 million cost was covered in part by $1.9 million paid by the Cathedral of Christ the King for the archbishop’s previous residence on West Wesley Road so it could be used as the cathedral rectory. The additional $300,000 that was spent did not come from the Mitchell bequest.
The residence of over 6,000 square feet includes living quarters for the archbishop, guest rooms, and a ground floor where meetings, gatherings and events can be held, in addition to a chapel. The West Wesley residence where archbishops of Atlanta have resided since 1966 was similar in design but was a renovated private home.
In his column in The Georgia Bulletin, published online March 31, Archbishop Gregory apologized, saying “while my advisors and I were able to justify this project fiscally, logistically and practically, I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia.”
He also apologized for failing to consider the impact on families struggling to pay bills and make ends meet but faithfully responding to his pleas for support of ministries. He expressed his desire “to move deliberately forward and to do a better job of listening than I did before.”
Msgr. Dan Stack, who attended the meeting, strongly praised the archbishop’s decisiveness in opting to sell the suddenly controversial residence.
“In his ‘What I Have Seen and Heard’ essay, he ate the largest portion of crow I have ever seen anyone devour and did it with gusto. There was a problem and he owned it completely,” said Msgr. Stack, referring to the archbishop’s column.
“Then, this morning he asked three groups with whom he regularly consults to advise him. … He listened, thanked us for our input and dismissed us. A few hours later, following the strong majority opinion, he made the decision to retreat from his recently completed home,” Msgr. Stack said.
“I have been thrilled with this archbishop from the first words of his homily at his installation and was thrilled again this morning,” the pastor said.
“I think he and the archdiocese will benefit from this difficult decision,” he said.
Msgr. Stack, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church, in Cartersville, said that most of the more than 50 people at the meeting voiced their opinion on whether the archdiocese should keep or sell the residence.
A “fair consensus” of their advice was “a house isn’t worth this much controversy,” Msgr. Stack said. The majority recommended selling the property, but some very strongly wanted to “stay the course,” he said, believing that the residence was a good business decision and equivalent to the previous residence where successive Atlanta archbishops have lived and hosted events since 1966.
A member of the Council of Priests, which was consulted about the building of the new residence, Msgr. Stack said he thought that Archbishop Gregory had consulted appropriately again.
“I think his consultation at the beginning of and during this project was good and reasonable. I think this consultation in response to the controversy was appropriate,” he said.
Msgr. Peter Rau, also a member of the Priests’ Council, said the meeting was “supportive and collaborative.”
“Recommendations and advice came from a wide range of voices—lay people who serve on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, lay people who advise the archbishop on financial matters, and priests representing various constituencies of priests working in the archdiocese,” Msgr. Rau said.
“It seemed to me that more people than not thought the best decision was to sell the residence on Habersham Road,” he said.
The pastor of St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, Msgr. Rau said there was “solid support for the archbishop and faith that he would determine the correct course of action.”
“I was impressed by the character of the archbishop as he handled this situation. I am happy that we can move on,” Msgr. Rau said.
“The archbishop has made a decision and he has the full support of the archdiocese. Now we can focus on the good work that the Church has always done here in North Georgia,” he said.
‘Very Open Discussion’
With a professional background in strategic planning, Bill Hughey has served since 2008 on planning committees and the planning council of the archdiocese.
He strongly disagreed with the portrayal of the archbishop that came out in the media. He thinks most people have no idea that a bishop routinely is expected to host large gatherings at his residence for pastoral and administrative reasons and provide a place for visiting bishops to stay.
A member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, Hughey said the council was briefed in 2012 about the Mitchell bequest and the building of the new residence for the archbishop on Joseph Mitchell’s donated property on Habersham Road.
“Nothing was ever hidden. This was above board,” he said.
A Conyers resident, Hughey said he is “frustrated” by what he believes has been an unjustified attack on the integrity of Archbishop Gregory.
“He has never done anything that would have me ever question his integrity and his commitment to the people of the archdiocese. He is, in my opinion, a very remarkable man, and he is so committed to the people and his pastoral role in the church. He is truly a pastor of the people,” Hughey said.
“He has never done anything that would in any way be negative for this archdiocese. I am frustrated with how small people can be,” he said.
“My personal opinion is that there are people who made an issue out of something that did not need to be an issue,” Hughey said.
He said the April 5 meeting was a “very wonderful and very open discussion,” facilitated by Peter Faletti, director of planning and research for the archdiocese. Archbishop Gregory sat in the back of the room, Hughey said. Everyone present was encouraged to speak. The meeting lasted nearly two hours.
“They made sure everybody got their say,” he said.
It was “back and forth” about whether the residence should be kept or put up for sale, Hughey said. However, there was unanimity that it was the archbishop’s decision, he said, and that “whatever his decision, we would all support it.”
“It really was a wonderful exchange and dialogue,” he said.
At the end, Archbishop Gregory thanked people for “being so honest and direct.” While some urged him to wait, he said he did not want it to overshadow the Easter season.
“He made the decision that was in the best interests of the people of the archdiocese. Where he lives is really not that important,” Hughey said. “He made the right decision. He needed to take ownership of it, which he did so graciously and so completely.”
“He is one of those people who does what he says he is going to do. I was honored to be a part of the process,” Hughey said.
In retrospect, the call to simplicity of life exemplified by Pope Francis is for all followers of Christ, Father Atem said.
“It is important to recognize that this call is for all and not for clergy alone. There should be a greater awareness among all Catholics, clergy and lay alike, of the preferential option for the poor. … The call to simplicity of life is grounded in our baptism and only intensified at priestly ordination. The toll calls for thee.”
Nichole Golden contributed to this story.