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Neighborhood institution gets a reprieve

Few aging towns in the region - perhaps the nation - have undergone a transformation akin to that of West Conshohocken, where housing developments and McMansions have changed the tiny borough.

Few aging towns in the region - perhaps the nation - have undergone a transformation akin to that of West Conshohocken, where housing developments and McMansions have changed the tiny borough.

But since 1888, one constant in the Montgomery County borough has been the humble stone building with the red door on Bullock Street: St. Gertrude's Catholic Church.

Although the church has been shut for two years, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the borough have joined forces to ensure that the West Conshohocken institution will survive.

Bypassing proposals by developers, and one higher bid, the archdiocese has sold the building to West Conshohocken, said the Rev. Tom Heron, pastor of St. Matthews Church in neighboring Conshohocken. Under parish realignments, St. Gertrude's parishioners now attend St. Matthews.

Spurred on by the completion of the Blue Route, linking the Pennsylvania Turnpike with I-95, the aggregate value of the borough's real estate has jumped fivefold in the last 20 years - from $108.4 million to $542.4 million - according to state figures. The borough of 1,300 has added 170 new buildings in that time.

But even as West Conshohocken has become a real estate hot spot and witnessed an influx of new residents, the borough decided it wanted to keep the old church as a continuing community resource.

St. Gertrude's "has been a very, very important part of a number of families lives for a number of years," West Conshohocken Borough Manager Michael English said. "The church has been . . . very instrumental in the borough's community life."

When the church closed in 2014, its story epitomized the difficulties of the Philadelphia archdiocese. Faced with decreasing membership, it became financially unsustainable for the archdiocese to staff St. Gertrude's, and its congregation was merged with St. Matthews.

"To use a sports analogy, we could no longer play man to man," said Father Tom Heron, who oversaw the closing and merger. "We had to go back to zone."

Last month's sale to the borough, for $1.25 million, came despite the interest of several real estate developers.

Heron said that part of the reason the church was sold to the borough was to maintain good relations with the community. Four of the five parties were developers, he said, but he said he chose the town because of St. Gertrude's long ties to the borough.

"I don't want to be a divisive force in the community," he said.

The church had financial reasons for accepting the borough's bid.

Developer offers come with multiple contingencies, including zoning requirements, which could have delayed construction and payments and, if met with implacable community and legal opposition, endanger the project altogether. The borough, by contrast, sought to buy the church as is.

"If you're competing with someone who wants to keep it as is and use it as such, they're able to offer more," said Philadelphia-area developer Joe Desantis, whose firm considered making a bid on the property but ultimately decided against it due to the hurdles it would face in attempting to redevelop it.

The borough's council has not yet determined what it wants to do with the church, but it is not the first church property the borough has purchased and repurposed. In 2006, the town acquired a 1.6-acre parcel of land across the street from the church that formerly hosted St. Gertrude's Elementary School and St. Gertrude's covenant, turning it into a neighborhood park.

The council hopes the church will also eventually have some kind of public function and plans to spend the next six months to a year considering what it wants to do.


By the numbers

Tiny West Conshohocken has undergone dramatic real estate growth in the last 20 years.

Here is the aggregate value for all the borough's properties:

$108.4 million


$314.2 million


$542.4 million


SOURCE: Pennsylvania Tax Equalization Division