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A blow for history / October 01, 2015

Dear Viewpoint:

We write this commentary to express our concern regarding the decision by the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Halifax, the church Vestry, and the Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia to sell the church’s rectory. Historic properties are one of the most valuable assets that churches have. In the early 1840s, Dabney Cosby, Jr. designed the rectory and church for St. John’s after working with his father on the Halifax County Courthouse and numerous other courthouses, jails, and homes in Virginia and North Carolina. Dabney Cosby, Sr. worked on early buildings at the University of Virginia, where he studied brick making and design under Thomas Jefferson. It has been said that maintaining historic properties is not the primary mission of the church, yet such a statement belies the value of such properties to the ongoing missions and vitality of the church.

Such properties can be instrumental in fulfilling one of the primary missions of the Episcopal Church—the cultivation of spiritual communities. Rectories are one of the few perks that make a difference to clergy families. They help place the families at the heart of the communities that clergy serve and help to integrate clergy families into the fabric of those communities. The sale of the rectory would be a loss to the culture of the church and to the clergy. Some argue that clergy families no longer want to live in rectories because they prefer newer homes or want to build personal equity. In reality, there is a trend among young families to go back to rectories because they cannot afford housing in the highly coveted neighborhoods where their churches are located, they do not want to buy property as a more mobile generation living in a volatile economy, and they enjoy the benefit of Housing Equity Allowances provided by many churches and mandated by other dioceses. Additionally, young clergy are drawn to gracious older rectories near churches as they can entertain ministry groups and easily access the church where they attend meetings at all hours.

It has also been said that the cost of maintaining the property has become burdensome, that it has become a financial drain, and that in its current condition the rectory would deter a Rector from accepting a call to St. John’s. There are a number of options to defray the costs of maintenance at the church and the rectory, including rehabilitation, land conservation, and renewable energy tax credits, which can be attained by establishing limited partnerships with taxpayers as well as Power Purchase Agreements. Initial funding for rehabilitation may include selling the other home St. John’s owns and/or raising proceeds by doing garden tours similar to those conducted during Historic Garden Week in Virginia, which has raised millions for public restoration projects.

Because the house contributes to the Mountain Road Historic District, the church may apply for Rehabilitation Tax Credits available through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service. Work may qualify for a federal credit of 20% or a state credit of 25% dependent upon the property’s ultimate use. The church may also be eligible for the Virginia Land Preservation Tax Credit and federal tax deductions by placing its properties in land conservation easements. In addition, tax credits, rebates, and other incentives for non-profits may be received by installing renewable energy such as solar panels and other energy efficient upgrades. Such initiatives will benefit the church by reducing energy costs and fulfilling the mission priorities of the National Church, which calls churches to be mindful stewards of natural resources and consider the health of their communities. These steps, though complex, seem achievable for a community that has effectively combatted uranium mining for decades and established conservation easements within the county for future generations.

So, what does the church plan to do with the funds raised from the sale of the rectory? St. John’s has focused its energy and resources on other mission priorities, and every dollar spent on the rectory without creative financing is one dollar not available for other priorities. The $369,000 asking price would certainly yield funds for other missions; yet, the Vestry has committed to set aside the proceeds for a clergy Housing Allowance. At today’s interest rate with a 30-year loan, prospective clergy should require approximately $20,000 a year in allowance to purchase a property of the same value as the rectory. While this is more affordable in the short term, this is not sustainable and will cost the church much more in the long term. The $369,000 asking price hardly captures the value of a resource such as the rectory.

We are amazed St. John’s would give up the historical tradition and the opportunities that the rectory might offer to future generations. We hope that members of the church will call the sale of the St. John’s Episcopal Church Rectory into question.

The children of the Rev. Alfred C. Martin

Dirck, Laura, Elizabeth, Kyle, Brian, Heather, Bruce, Watson and Anna

(The letter signers were raised in the Town of Halifax. The Rev. Alfred Martin served as rector of St. John’s from 1965-1993 and the family lived in the rectory during that time — Ed.)

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