Making an Impact Through Real Estate and the Catholic Imagination

The Church Properties Initiative at Notre Dame is housed under the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate. Program director David J. Murphy told the Rover that the initiative arose out of the desire to use the university’s resources in service of the Church’s needs.

Murphy said: “As a real estate institute, we have construction, management, finance, architecture, all the things that any secular university would have. But as a Catholic university, we recognize that the Church is the largest non-state landowner in the world. There’s a mismatch between all this landowning property and the training that we invest in for the religious life.”

Notre Dame law professor Nicole Stelle Garnett, a fellow of the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate and property law researcher, told the Rover: “It strikes me that a lot of bishops and dioceses have a lot of assets and don’t know what to do with them … They could be used for anything from housing for young adults to homelessness, and a lot of them aren’t being used at all. It’s great that Notre Dame uses all the resources we have to support the Church in this way.”

The Church Properties Initiative uses a data-driven approach to address these issues. Murphy shared with the Rover: “We are really interested in understanding the pressure points from priests, religious orders, nuns, the laity. When you encounter issues on real estate, either local or all the way up to the Archdiocese level, what are the issues? How can we help map them? For example, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, you have a parish proximity issue where you’ll have the Italian Church, the German Church, the Irish Church, and the Hungarian Church, almost across the street from each other … We have five churches in a mile, and we really only need one of them. That’s playing out across huge regions of the US and all across Europe.”

The Church Properties Initiative works to identify the problem; examine existing, innovative solutions; pick apart case studies; and inform the church of potential solutions. Murphy gave an example of a church in Pittsburgh: “They just opened what’s called the Brother Andre Cafe in an old, beautiful parish, in a basement that was kind of run down. There wasn’t really anything going on, but it’s right in the financial district of Pittsburgh, so it has a really good location. And they opened a cafe that’s run by people with autism and Down syndrome. That’s a really creative use of the space.”

Murphy explained the goals of the initiative. “We want to provide both the vision but also case study details, including some of the business things you have to look out for, including business income tax, property tax exemptions, the legal liability issues, architectural concerns.” He elaborated on the importance of these resources and expertise for clergy and church staff. “These kinds of details can sometimes be really daunting for someone if they don’t have a background in real estate.”

The Church Properties Initiative also aims to continue the conversation around real estate management in the Church. They host a monthly global webinar series and have an upcoming conference in Rome, working with a pontifical university, members of the Vatican and different offices of the Church, and religious orders to bring people together and create a forum to ask questions about problems related to real estate and discuss practical solutions that serve the mission of the Church.

Student engagement stands as the Church Properties Initiative’s final focus. Murphy told the Rover, “We are super excited to announce that we have a class next semester that we’re offering on church properties. How does the Church think about property canonically, biblically, and spiritually? How do we think of land? How does the real estate world operate? And how can we bring those together again to unleash the Gospel?” The class is called “Church Real Estate: On Land and the Lord” and will be taught by Professor Dan Kelly and Mr. David Murphy.

The initiative is also doing a small project with Fort Wayne-South Bend, having students look at different church properties and examine how they could be used more effectively. The initiative also houses the Church Property Fellows for students to engage in research, workshops, conferences, and speaker series on church property.

Professor Garnett told the Rover, “So many real estate programs focus on market based research and making money, and that’s all great, but this is a particular need that serves the Church, as well as our mission … It’s also a great opportunity for students to get involved to pair mission and service to the Church with skills that will be useful after graduation.”

Junior Samanta Cook, a Church Property Fellow, said, “So far, my experience within the program has been nothing but positive! We are currently delving into a mass organization of current Church properties throughout the South Bend-Fort Wayne Diocese … Looking towards the future, we hope to meet with the clergy who represent these properties, and interview/consult with them about potential improvements that could be implemented. As an engineering major … this opportunity is extremely valuable to me, as I will be able to learn about consulting, property management, along with the development process.”

Murphy concluded by emphasizing the potential of the institute to improve communities around the world. He stated, “The church is the largest social service provider in the world … with 1.3 billion people around the world. The Church is alive in all of these communities at a very local level meeting needs of people, whether that’s feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless. All of that eventually plays out in a specific place, and Notre Dame is able to help the Church globally reimagine its property to be used in today’s world … If the Catholic imagination can address some of these fallow properties to leverage them into places of encounter with Christ, we have the ability to really create lasting impact for our Church and for our community.”

Bridget Stockrahm is a sophomore studying Economics and Applied Computational Mathematics and Statistics. Since Halloween is officially over, she can be found anxiously awaiting ski season and listening to Michael Bublé’s Christmas album. Contact her at

Photo credit: Lawrence OP, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License