VENTNOR — Priests accustomed to spending summers during their retirement at a diocese-owned Ventnor beach house will no longer be able to do so, effective Saturday.
That’s when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will close Villa St. Joseph-by-the-Sea, a 12-room stucco mansion on the Boardwalk at Princeton Avenue. Retired priests have reserved rooms there for getaways during May through October since 1963, said Frances Deibert, whose family has worked there since shortly after it opened and managed it for almost three decades.
“It’s sad because it’s such a great job,” said Deibert, who lives in the Smithville section of Galloway Township. “I’ve known a lot of these priests for a long time. Seventy-five is retirement age, but we had a guest who was 97 last year.”
Financial difficulties forced the decision: Selling the property, which is assessed at $6.2 million, will help balance the archdiocese’s $17 million deficit. The recent conclusion of a sex abuse case will cost the church an additional $11 million, but the diocese said that is not a factor.
Accessible only to staff and the retired priests with reservations there, the three-level, 1920s-era house features a chapel overlooking the ocean and secluded backyard surrounded by thick trees and high brick walls.
Although the 195 dioceses and archdioceses nationwide typically provide permanent, full-time homes for their retired priests, it is rare for them to run vacation homes, according to land records and interviews with officials from other dioceses and archdioceses in New Jersey, including the Diocese of Camden, Diocese of Trenton and Archdiocese of Newark.
Those representatives cited examples of retreats, which are meant for working clergy to recharge by spending time in prayer and other spiritual pursuits, which often share a location with churches, chapels, convents or rectories.
Similar facilities run by private organizations do not cater exclusively to vacationing, retired clergy. Villa St. Maria-by-the-Sea, for example, shares its compound on 110th Street in Stone Harbor with a convent, chapel and rectory — all run by Immaculata University in Immaculata, Pa., borough officials said Wednesday.
Deibert acknowledged how unique Villa St. Joseph has been, but said the fact that the facility was donated was key in affording the archdiocese’s retired clergy opportunities for free beach vacations for almost 50 years.
The property at 114 S. Princeton Ave. was donated in 1963 by real estate investor Hannah Hogan, the sister of the late Rev. Edward Hogan of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Hogan’s obituary states.
Hannah Hogan spent summers in Ventnor and retired to West Palm Beach, Fla. Before her death at age 90, Hogan was involved in many real estate and development deals, including those that yielded landmark hotels the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc in Miami, according to her obituary.
Almost 36 years since her death July 1, 1976, one of the last properties she dealt with will be closed and put up for sale.
The sale of Villa St. Joseph is not mentioned in a statement released one week ago by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to address its deficit expected to exceed $17 million during the upcoming year.
“The extraordinary legal and professional costs of the past 16 months, while burdensome, played little role in the current budget decisions,” which are meant to address problems that “have been building for years,” the release stated.
One day later, the archdiocese issued an apologetic response to the mixed verdict in a child sex abuse case that ended last Friday with a jury finding Monsignor William Lynn guilty of child endangerment but not guilty of conspiracy.
The matter will cost the archdiocese more than $11.6 million.
In addition to freezing salaries, the archdiocese will fire 45 staffers, merge 19 of 40 offices and ministries and cease publication of The Catholic Standard & Times and Phaith Magazine, according to the statement.
Archdiocese spokesman Kenneth Gavin confirmed the pending sale Wednesday. He said the church has not yet selected a real estate agent. Gavin declined via email to provide further details.
Richard Wannemacher, 78, of West Chester, Pa., said he’s long known retired priests summer at the house overlooking the Princeton Avenue beach where he and his wife have frequented for about a half-century. Reporters and TV film crews lurking Tuesday signaled to him and his wife that something was going on.
When he heard it was closing, he figured financial concerns were driving the decision, he said.
“They’re closing schools and things, and people are angry. Parents are protesting,” said Wannemacher, a retired junior high school teacher. “It would be difficult to defend keeping it open with their monetary problems.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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