October 25, 2022 // Diocese

Getting Real about Church Real Estate: Notre Dame Leads Efforts to Improve Property Management

The University of Notre Dame’s Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate (FIRE) has had a few reasons to celebrate in the first five years since its founding. With its first graduates belonging to the class of 2022, the new real estate minor has retained 379 undergraduate students. Popular majors of the cohort include finance and architecture, and from this group has sprung most of the undergraduate interest in FIRE’s Church Properties Initiative, an exciting collaboration with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend that has involved faculty, students, and professionals alike. 

Whatever they study, students desire hands-on experiences. One opportunity provided by the initiative is the Church Properties Workshop, a one-credit applied learning course. Program Director Madeline Johnson explained how the course reflects the work of the initiative overall: “We have affiliated faculty who in their respective fields are doing academic research. But our institute is very much this hybrid of the academy and individual needs on the ground.” With an extensive waitlist for the workshop and many more students interested in the institute’s course listings, FIRE has proven that students are excited to get out and see actual properties in the community. 


Johnson considered this interest in community — particularly in church property — a theme of the Notre Dame student body. She shared that in class in the spring of 2022, students presented church property case studies, and most chose their home parish or high school. She explained that considering these spaces with a new purpose gave them a “look under the hood” and provoked questions about the Church that they might not otherwise ask. The initiative introduces its students to a network of professionals who are people of faith, passionate about serving the Church with their expertise. 

The institute offers an undergraduate seminar in the spring that focuses largely on the differences between mainstream real estate and the Catholic Church or any nonprofit entity. Lawyers, canon lawyers, and leaders of nonprofits such as Catholic Charities speak to the students, and Johnson shared that: “Many of our guest speakers explicitly invite students to consider a career in the nonprofit sector, which I think is exciting.”

Provided by Maddie Johnson
Father Craig Borchard, Pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Elkhart, displays archival plans for a past campus expansion.

As he considered the initiative’s interdisciplinary approach, University of Notre Dame School of Architecture Professor Philip Bess expressed the necessity of such mentorship given today’s culture: “The standard practices of both contemporary architectural practice and the modern real estate industry are each deeply problematic, as the most cursory observation of our current patterns of human settlement demonstrate.” He continued to explain that “both architectural practice and real estate development are deeply embedded and complicit” in what is a truly systemic “hyper-individualist culture.”

Bess continued, “The hope should be that the Catholic context of the Notre Dame School of Architecture and the Notre Dame Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate can both inspire the better angles of architects and real estate developers,” and focus future building projects away from “excessive self-interest.”

FIRE continues to build on its existing relationship with the local Church. Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, Johnson explained, has given them access to and a platform within the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend to learn much. By Bishop Rhoades’ invitation, Church Properties Initiative representatives spoke in September to the priests of the diocese at a presbyterate meeting. 

Students assisting through parish visits will likely compile a report on demographic trends in the diocese. On a more local scale, students will help develop site-specific projects, as they discover the needs of pastors.

Johnson said that the institute is “almost actively researching” how to transfer real estate principles to Church business matters. But this trade in ideas goes both ways and encourages those in the field of real estate to think bigger. Johnson said, “Because the Church context forces us to broaden the frame of reference, we’re invited to do the same in mainstream real estate as we ‘create places of lasting value,’ as our tagline suggests.”

One practical lesson the Church can take from real estate, Johnson shared, is a sense of her portfolio and core assets. To that end, the institute completed an inventory of all diocesan properties and have now moved into the needs-assessment stage. From site visits, students and institute staff will compile a report for Bishop Rhoades with actionable insights. 

Johnson explained that of all anticipated projects, the renovation and repurposing of rectories and the institutional memory of parishes for property management seem most relevant and extensive. Ultimately, the institute’s plans depend on the needs of the diocese, and, as Johnson shared, “Nobody knows church property better than a local pastor.”

While diocesan leaders are as tempted as anyone else to sell real estate holdings in this market, Bess considered: “How much better might it be for the Church to view its properties in such a market as assets rather than liabilities, and as opportunities to exercise good stewardship of its land holdings in service to and pursuit of its divine vocation.”

 “One hopes,” Bess added, “real estate developers, attorneys, and bishops might understand how beautiful and durable buildings and cities create durable wealth, provide long-term benefits both environmental and civilizational, and are genuine goods in and of themselves.”  

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