VENTNOR, N.J. - The sight of elderly Catholic priests rocking in wicker chairs outside the grand oceanfront home on Princeton Avenue has been a familiar part of this seaside town for nearly a half-century.
But that era is about to come to an abrupt close after an order by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput to shut the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's 19-room vacation home at the Shore by Saturday and put it up for sale.
"It's not listed with a broker yet, but will be soon," archdiocesan spokesman Kenneth Gavin said of the property at 114 S. Princeton, which stretches a full block along the Boardwalk and is assessed at $6.2 million.
The retired priests who had planned a stay at Villa St. Joseph by the Sea were recently told that their reservations would be canceled as of Saturday, the end of the archdiocese's fiscal year. Facing a $17 million operating deficit and a price tag of at least $11.6 million for its response to the 2011 Philadelphia grand jury report on clergy sex abuse, the archdiocese has been engaged in massive restructuring, cost-cutting, and selling of assets.
The 21,875-square-foot villa, which last year cost the archdiocese $114,562 in property taxes, was acquired by then-Archbishop John Krol in 1963 from Hannah G. Hogan, a real estate investor and owner of a plumbing supply company. Hogan wanted the home used for elderly and ill priests in memory of her brother, the Rev. Edward Hogan.
Though the property - which Hogan bought for $55,000 in 1961 - was said to have been donated to the archdiocese, its June 2, 1963, deed shows tax stamps indicating a sale price of $100,000, according to the Atlantic County Clerk's Office. It is now one of the highest-assessed homes in Ventnor.
Local Realtors said the property could command in the area of $5 million and would likely attract the interest of investors looking to raze the century-old Tudor residence with a gabled roof and build homes on single lots.
Neighbors used to the sight of priests strolling in white T-shirts and khaki shorts or gazing at the ocean from the villa's second-story deck were surprised and saddened by the news.
"They've been the most wonderful neighbors you could have," said Charles Fischer, 85, who lives directly across Princeton. He said he often heard the men singing at the dining room table, "almost like a fraternity."
"Every year when Cardinal Krol was here, I said to him, 'Are we winning or losing?' - meaning in life, in the condition of our people," Fischer said. "He was always upbeat."
Many in town believed that the church was forbidden to sell the property - that attempting to do so would have caused it to revert to its original owner. The deed, however, reflects no such restrictions.
The archdiocese has sold other property it acquired from Hogan. In 1980, it razed a beachfront home on Oxford Avenue and auctioned the lot a year later for $545,000 to a business partnership. The lot remains vacant.
In addition to property tax, the church has paid for cooks, waiters, landscapers, caretakers, and nurses to take care of the priests who rotated in and out of Villa St. Joseph during the summers. The house has nine bedrooms, a large deck, an elevator, a grand staircase, and a foyer featuring 10-inch-square marble tiles. Its spacious back lawn, which borders Portland Avenue, features a lily pond, a barbecue, and a shrine to the Virgin Mary.
The affable Krol was known to entertain some of the church's wealthiest Philadelphia-area contributors at the villa. During the two weeks a year he spent there, Krol often hosted contractor John McShain, who built the Pentagon and other Washington-area buildings; John McCloskey, another builder; and John Connelly, owner of the Crown Cork & Seal Co., said Mary Lou Ferry, a Realtor who grew up next door.
"It was great growing up there," Ferry said. "You'd hear them singing the high Mass in Latin. It was beautiful."
Under the direction of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the church embarked on a $500,000 renovation at the same time it was closing parishes in Philadelphia, leading to protests at the property.
The renovations later were said to have been paid for by the Connelly family, which also owns property on Princeton.
Fran Deibert, whose family has managed the house for the archdiocese for 25 years, said 12 priests were at the house for this final week. One, a blind monsignor, sat on the front porch Tuesday afternoon and smoked a pipe. Others lounged on the deck. Neighbors said they often saw the priests around the beach and on the Boardwalk.
"It's been a wonderful job," said Deibert, who paused for a moment before she returned to overseeing the house's last guests. "Very rewarding."
The Catholic Church used to own a number of summer Shore homes for retired priests and vacation and respite houses for nuns, but financial pressures have changed that.
Another landmark Tudor beachfront home in Ventnor, with a distinctive red cupola and a round interior chapel, was sold several years ago by the Sisters of Charity of New York for $3 million. The property was torn down and subdivided for new construction. The sisters said they could no longer afford the taxes.
"It's the end of an era when they have to give up their summer home, their respite home," said Gail Slogoff, another Princeton Avenue neighbor, who recalled fondly the time lightning struck a chimney on a nearby home and a priest assured her he was praying for her.
"It's always been beautiful, a real landmark in Ventnor," she said.