Friday, January 11, 2008

Fleece my sheep to pimp my house

Every year, we Catholics get the "stewardship homily" at Mass, coinciding with the archdiocesan annual campaign.

And just last Sunday, our parish got the soft sell from a freshly scrubbed seminarian seeking the faithful's help in defraying the high cost of priestly education.

ONE FACT in modern Church life is inescapable: Shepherds gotta have cash to tend to those sheep. In fact, that's just the analogy the Omaha archdiocese used last year for its annual campaign -- "Feed My Sheep."

On the spring day Mrs. Favog and I were received into the Catholic Church back in 1990, the priest, a World War II combat vet, was much more direct -- in that inimitable way old military men have.

"There is no free lunch at Christ the King," he told the congregation. We cringed as we looked at all our very Protestant friends and relatives in the pews, for we had the bad luck of getting confirmed not at Easter Vigil, but instead on the May day devoted to getting congregants to cough up the cash.

I couldn't help but think of what my old man -- a bitter and cynical soul who had not much use for Catholics or the churched in general -- had to say when I told him we were becoming Catholic.

"All they want is your money," is what I heard over the telephone line from 1,100 miles and a couple of planets away. I think my response, in my convert's naivete, went something like "Well, they're welcome to it, then."

THING IS, my father had this knack for saying the most flat-out lunatic things you could imagine -- things that caused his son and daughter-in-law to do regular spit takes -- only to have them validated via some bizarre occurrence. Or when Father, at your confirmation, says "There is no free lunch at Christ the King."

Since, the tact level has increased tremendously. We generally get the soft sell, and lots and lots of talk about "stewardship."

Which I think is fine, actually. We do need to support the work of the Church. We need to tend to the broken and the broken-hearted. We need to feed the hungry and heal the sick and educate the clergy and provide for priests and nuns in their old age.

And I wish the Catholic Church -- or at least the Church in northeastern Nebraska -- would actually exercise a little good stewardship of its own and direct every possible penny toward doing exactly that.

INSTEAD, last Sunday, as we were getting that seminarian sob story designed to get every last mite out of every last widow, all those proverbial widows had to do was shuffle out of church, get into their sensible-but-aging Dodge automobiles and slowly drive the couple of miles or so through the frozen Omaha cityscape to 1024 Sunset Trail to see what "stewardship" means to the chancery bureaucrats in charge of spending what they faithfully drop into the collection plate.

There, about eight blocks from the offices where Archbishop Elden Francis Curtiss oversees his flock, sits a vacant house. A newly-expanded, remodeled and tricked-out $389,000 house fit for a king . . . or a soon-to-be-retired prince of the Church who
approaches his shepherding job rather like Britney Spears approaches motherhood.

Such a bore . . . rather beneath someone as excellent as he.

The Omaha World-Herald has done some further digging about Curtiss' swell future old-bachelor pad and found
it's likely worth every widow's mite the chancery paid:

A house that the Omaha Catholic Archdiocese recently bought as Archbishop Elden Curtiss' future retirement home had undergone a total renovation and a significant expansion, said the prior owner and an archdiocesan official who was involved in the purchase.

Realtor Jeff Rensch and the Rev. Gregory Baxter said in separate interviews that the house, at 1024 Sunset Trail in the Dillon's Fairacres neighborhood, was well worth the $389,000 that the archdiocese paid for it in December.

Among other reasons, they said, an addition and renovation project before the sale expanded the one-story house to 3,100 finished square feet, including the basement.

Rensch's wife, Mari, purchased the house for $155,500 in September 2006. The sale to the archdiocese has sparked controversy since a World-Herald article last week. Many people have asked whether the house was worth the price.

Jeff Rensch, who couldn't be reached for comment before last week's article was published, said this week that the renovation and the neighborhood justified the cost.

"If you have never gone through this type of total renovation, it may sound like (we) made money on this sale," he said, "but with all costs considered, it was break even at best."

The home, Rensch said, was sorely in need of updating when the Rensches purchased it. They intended it to be a home for his elderly mother, Rensch said, but that didn't work out.

They spent more than $200,000 on renovating the house, he said, including building a 230-square- foot addition.

When they started, the house had two bedrooms, one bath and about 1,500 square feet of space on the main level. The basement was partly finished.

By the time the Rensches and their contractor were done, the house had 3,100 square feet of finished space. Of that, about 1,650 square feet is on the main level, and the rest is in the basement.

The house now has four bedrooms and three bathrooms. Rensch said the project included building a 10-by-23-foot main-floor addition, removing many walls and reconfiguring space to make the house more open. They added two basement bedrooms and, to conform to city codes, added windows that could be used to escape a fire.

They replaced the roof, adding two peaks for a better roofline. They replaced all windows and siding. They built a new kitchen with granite countertops. They replaced all wiring and plumbing, added a fireplace and installed a whirlpool bath.

The construction took more than a year.

"We didn't go from terrible to Taj Mahal, but it's basically a new home," said Quintin Bogard, owner of Q's Home Services and co-general contractor on the renovation with Mari Rensch. "It's not extravagant, but it's a beautiful home. You're not going to get a newer home in the middle of town than that one."


He added by e-mail that he and his wife, who are Catholics with five children in Catholic schools, were "surprised and honored that the archbishop and his advisers noticed the home, appreciated Mari's work and decided to have him enjoy his retirement in this particular home."

Baxter said the house was worth the price. The Rev. Joseph Taphorn, chancellor of the Omaha archdiocese, said it will be a good investment for the archdiocese.

The Rensches, widely known in the Omaha real estate business, live within a few blocks of the house, which is near 61st Street and Western Avenue. They belong to St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, where Baxter is the pastor. Baxter also is an archdiocesan official and was assigned to help find a retirement residence for Curtiss.

AT LEAST WE NOW KNOW archdiocesan officials aren't stupid. They just think we are.

We live in an archdiocese where inner-city Catholic parishes are struggling to keep the doors open and their schools from being shuttered. Likewise, we live in a city that has seen violence and hopelessness spike in poor neighborhoods desperately in need of the hope and mercy of Jesus Christ.

We also live in an archdiocese where even large suburban parishes are down to one priest, have plenty of space in the rectory and sure could use the help of a spry retired archbishop.

But I guess the Archdiocese of Omaha, in its infinite wisdom, finds that the spectacle of an archbishop serving anyone other than himself would be entirely too compatible with the example of an itinerant Savior who never had 3,100 square feet of material comfort to crash in after a hard day casting out demons, curing lepers and getting crucified.

Because Jesus, after all, is for those who can't help themselves.

"All they want is your money."

I so freakin' hate it when my old man, now long in the grave, still gets proven right after saying the most damn-fool things.

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