The sweeping mansion at 77 Oakland Place looks a lot like a castle, a home fit for royalty.
In fact, for the past 60 years it has been the primary home of the head of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, currently Bishop Richard J. Malone.
But with a new pope whose penchant for simple living has captured the world’s attention, local Catholics are again debating the merits of their bishop living in such a grand abode.
At 11,050 square feet and with nine bedrooms and six bathrooms, the bishop’s house was once the most valuable single-family residence in the city. It is currently assessed at $1.3 million – nearly 20 times the median value of owner-occupied homes in Buffalo.
As bishop of Portland, Maine, Malone put a 16-room mansion in an upscale city neighborhood on the market and bought a newer, smaller, suburban home for about $600,000.
Malone said he’s not currently considering selling the Oakland Place residence, where two other Buffalo priests also live.
“It works for us, and really it’s cost-effective," he said. “If we didn’t have that, I’d have to live some other place. We’d have to buy some other place. It would have to be large enough, because I really do believe in the principle of bringing people into the bishop’s home. It’s why it’s a big deal when people have an audience with the pope inside the apostolic palace, not just out in the square.”
The Buffalo News first broached the topic with the bishop in February, and then again following the election of Pope Francis, when it became apparent that the new pontiff’s simple lifestyle and emphasis on serving the poor were resonating worldwide.
The pope lived in a modest apartment during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, often rode the bus and wore an old pair of black shoes. In the first days of his papacy, he waded into the crowds of St. Peter’s Square, shunned the papal limousine and even called to Buenos Aires to check on the man who used to sell him newspapers.
And on Tuesday, a Vatican official confirmed that the pope would live in a guest house for priests rather than move into the elegant and spacious papal apartment where pontiffs have lived since 1903.
Malone acknowledged during the most recent interview that all bishops were being called to consider what simplicity means in their lives and ministries.
But he also maintained that the Oakland Place mansion plays a crucial role in the diocese’s ability to assist the poor.
“Part of the work of the diocese happens there, the meetings we have there regularly, including Catholic Charities,” Malone said. “Many of those are meetings that generate huge amounts of money to serve people in need.”
Besides, while the home might look like a castle from the outside, it isn’t luxurious inside, he added.
Nonetheless, Pope Francis may be charting a new course for church leaders who had become accustomed to chauffeured rides, palatial homes and other perks bestowed upon clergy.
Bishops won’t want to appear out of step with the pope, said Christopher M. Bellitto, an expert in church history and chairman of the history department at Kean University in New Jersey.
“Cuff-link Catholicism is out, and working in soup kitchens is in,” Bellitto said. “The question people in the pews are going to be asking is whether or not this is authentic.”
A few years ago, in the midst of dozens of Catholic church and school closings, some Catholics called upon former Bishop Edward U. Kmiec to sell the mansion as a gesture of solidarity with parishioners who gave up their houses of worship.
The Rev. Roy Herberger, pastor of Ss. Columba & Brigid Church, said he still believes such a move might help some Catholics heal from the emotional wounds of losing their churches.
“The church leaders are always asking the people to make sacrifices,” Herberger said. “I don’t see what would be wrong with the bishop and staff to make a statement that we’re ready to sacrifice as well.”
Herberger argues that the mansion hurts the image of diocesan leaders among Catholics who scrimp and save to support their parishes.
Getting rid of it, he said, “would help smooth over some of the negativity.”
Mark Zirnheld, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic charity that serves the poor, said he, too, wondered if the diocese should consider alternatives to the bishop’s residence and perhaps even the diocese’s administrative offices, which are located on Main Street near the emerging Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
“Maybe it’s time to take a look at these again, and maybe the catalyst is this change in Rome,” Zirnheld said.
Still, he added, any such moves would have to make sense and “benefit the diocese as not just a public-relations gesture.”
Some bishops have moved in recent years to sell opulent residences.
Shortly after being appointed to lead the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2007, Bishop David Zubik chose to forgo living in a Tudor mansion in favor of a two-bedroom apartment at a seminary.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston who received buzz in Rome as a possible contender for the papacy, used the proceeds of the sale of the archdiocesan residence in 2004 to help pay off claims for cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. O’Malley has since lived in a rectory.
Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon also resides in a rectory with other priests. Former Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk lived in an archdiocesan-owned apartment for more than two decades. But the archdiocese in 2009 purchased a $469,000 suburban home for his successor, current Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr.
Whether more bishops move to scale down their residences remains to be seen, but it has become an obvious question in light of Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s ascent to the throne of St. Peter.
One political cartoon following the election showed two cardinals standing at a bus stop, with a palace and a Mercedes in the background, both marked for sale, and one of the prelates saying to the other: Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for him.
And even Malone admitted in the interview, “I have a feeling bishops around the world are meeting with journalists these days on a similar question.”
Some local Catholics said Malone could live in the St. Joseph Cathedral rectory or any number of other rectories around the diocese that have space. Functions could take place in closed churches or school buildings.
But Malone said the residence is much more than just living quarters.
“If we didn’t think of it primarily as a place to host all kinds of gatherings and events, I could certainly live in a smaller place. I don’t need a lot of space. That’s not the point. As long as I have my books and my little baby grand [piano], I’m OK,” said Malone.
The diocese purchased the house for about $50,000 in 1952, and it has been home to five bishops, as well as an integral part of “the ongoing life and work” of the diocese, the bishop said.
“I’ve learned over the years people enjoy coming into the home of the bishop, rather than into a restaurant or function room. So that’s really a major reason why we have the house,” he added.
Plenty of local Catholics have been encouraged by what they’ve seen and heard so far from Pope Francis.
Sister Johnice Rzadkiewicz, who runs the Response to Love Center, a Catholic nonprofit human services agency on the East Side, said even her non-Catholic clients have expressed enthusiasm for Pope Francis and his unadorned, down-to-earth manner.
“One of the people said, ‘He’s like us,’ Rzadkiewicz noted. “They like the idea that he didn’t have the red shoes, and he didn’t have the cape … They can identify, and many of them are not Catholic.”
Rzadkiewicz said she doesn’t fault Malone for living in the diocesan mansion.
“When I look at Bishop Malone, he’s got a beautiful spirit of poverty,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you have to sell everything. It’s the spirit of being poor. ... You can live in a mansion. You can live in a palace. That’s OK, as long as it doesn’t become your possession.”
Zirnheld, of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said he sees in Pope Francis “a kindred spirit” who has “at the forefront of his daily work and daily outlook” a concern for people, especially the poor.
“He’s comfortable wearing that robe, but at the same time, he’s not using it to erect a barrier between you and him,” Zirnheld said. “The most recognizable face in the church seems to be a very approachable man.”
Zirnheld sees Francis stripping away the trappings of the church to focus on a core message of service – something he hopes “trickles down” throughout the church.
Malone, too, has been paying close attention to the pope. “I’m one of the many who are fascinated and intrigued by this man,” he said.
But the bishop suggested that simplifying one’s life isn’t necessarily as simple as moving to a smaller home – and it isn’t always apparent to onlookers, either.
“That’s really a deeply spiritual question. That goes deep because simplicity and humility are really more than anything else interior kinds of virtues and commitments and may show themselves externally in some cases and not in others,” he said.