Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Hours of signatures resolves legal question of parish property ownership

Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the June 14, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Keith Newell of Spokane County Title provided documents for Bishop Skylstad’s signature. The action transferred “whatever interest he had in parish properties to the new parish corporations,” said Father Steve Dublinski, the diocese’s Vicar General. (IR photo)

Since the beginning of the Diocese of Spokane’s Chapter 11 legal proceedings, some four years ago, one of the most basic legal questions has been: Who owns parish properties?

“As part of the plan of reorganization,” explained diocesan Vicar General Father Steve Dublinski, “parishes have now separately incorporated. (On Monday, May 21, at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center) the bishop transferred whatever interest he had in parish properties to the new parish corporations. At the same time, the parishes, as unincorporated associations, transferred whatever property interest they had into the new parish corporations. This resolves the question of ownership of parish properties.

“This was a question,” Father Dublinski continued, “because in the Chapter 11 (legal proceedings), the creditors claimed that the bishop owned all the parish property. The bishop argued that according to church law, parishes owned their own property and that according to the (state’s) corporate sole statute, under which the diocese was incorporated, the bishop only held title to the properties for the benefit of the parishes, and the parishes are, in fact, the ones who purchased the properties, maintained the properties, and improved the properties, so that all real ownership belonged to the parish, and the bishop simply held the title because the parishes were not allowed to hold the title because they were not incorporated.”

The only parishes in the diocese that were not involved with this process were those located on Indian tribal lands, Father Dublinski said, “because those parishes are subject to federal laws. We will be in dialogue with those parishes as to what they want to do as far as their corporate structure (is concerned), but ownership of their parish properties was never really disputed due to the fact that their property is on federal land, and the bishop never held title to those lands.” Those titles are held in a Jesuit historical corporation, he said.

The May 21 legal gathering at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, to sign all the papers necessary for changing the legal status of the parishes, involved considerable travel and considerable penmanship, especially for Bishop William Skylstad. Sunday evening, May 20, at the conclusion of 16-hours of air travel, Bishop Skylstad returned to Spokane from Brazil, where in his capacity as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he had been attending a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean. Monday morning, at 11:35 a.m., seated at a small table in a small room just off Immaculate Heart Retreat Center’s main meeting area, the bishop began signing legal documents.

Seated on the other side of the table, Keith Newell, of Spokane County Title, slipped document after document across the table to Bishop Skylstad, who signed his name more than 250 times. With only one 15-minute break, and with no sign of writer’s cramp, the bishop signed the final document at 1:40 p.m., some two hours later. Bishop Skylstad then stood, cordially thanked Mr. Newell and his three assistants, and stepped through the door into the meeting area. Moments later, standing at a small podium, the bishop faced most of the priests of the diocese, seated before him, and led them in prayer.

“Gracious and loving God,” Bishop Skylstad prayed, “as we come together at this historic moment, we ask always your blessing upon us and upon the work we do in service to you and your people. As we come closer to the conclusion of this challenging journey these past four years, we thank you for the guidance of your Spirit, and we look forward to the future with continued rebuilding among our Catholic family here in Eastern Washington. . . .”

Gregory J. Arpin, one of the attorneys who represented the diocese in the Chapter 11 proceedings, later explained that, “In order to make it perfectly clear that the parishes own their property, they had to be given a legal identity which is recognized under civil law as being capable of holding legal title to property. The civil legal identity of the parishes as it existed prior to the filing of the Chapter 11 was not sufficient under Washington law for that purpose.”

Arpin said, “This incorporation of parishes will not change the way each parish is governed under canon law by the parish pastor, in consultation with the finance and parish councils. Nor will it change the ecclesial relationship under Canon Law between a parish and the bishop and diocese…. The formation of each parish into a nonprofit corporation simply allows each parish to now hold the legal title to its own property, so that, in the future, there can be no misunderstanding as to who owns the parishes.”

Father Michael Savelesky, pastor of Spokane’s Assumption Parish and priest co-chair of the Association of Parishes, said that he found it “inspiring to observe that the signing event for the legal transfer of property into the hands of parishes took place at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center – and just before we priests began our retreat together. The transfer is a critical step in the implementation of the bankruptcy’s Plan of Reorganization, but it also is a significant step in the renewal of our entire diocese. That renewal must be rooted in prayer and reflection if it is to be deep and long-lasting.”

Over the next six-plus hours, priests who are pastors of parishes also signed documents necessary to change the legal status of their parishes from unincorporated associations to not-for-profit corporations.

“We are nearing the end to bankruptcy,” Father Savelesky said, “but the healing and renewal for which our hearts yearn is just beginning. With the help of God’s grace and goodness, these efforts, too, will be blessed with measurable success.”

Once again taking up his obligations as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that same Monday afternoon Bishop Skylstad returned to Spokane International Airport – for another 16 hours of air travel back to Brazil.

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