The legacy of Religion Inc

WITH an asset base worth €2.6 billion, 17 religious orders have been asked by the state to find up to €350 million in cash or property as an additional contribution to the redress deal.

This €2.6bn figure does not include many sites already placed in trust or the assets offered, and accepted by the state, as part of the 2001 indemnity deal.

The overall figure also does not reflect buildings held under a number of different companies established by the orders, such as the firms the Sisters of Charity set up to manage St Vincent’s Hospital (Dublin), St Patrick’s Hospital (Cork) and Our Lady’s Hospice.

In individual submissions to the Department of Education, the orders involved in redress have explained the “handicapped” nature of their property holdings and the difficulty they had placing any realistic value on them.

For instance, the Order of St John of God and the Brothers of Charity outlined how their campuses are in use for those who need their services. And, they said, it would not be practical to assess their facilities as anything other than the hospitals, day-care centres or training centres which they are today.

However, the property assets, which include development land, farms and vacant houses, were also supplemented with €579m in financial assets and overseas investments.

This information was prepared by the 17 orders in mid-2009 and it is not clear if they suffered similar hits in equity stocks, which has seen individual dioceses lose in excess of €10m on Bank of Ireland shares.

The orders have said much of these financial assets have been earmarked for the continuing care of their aging congregations or international obligations.

However, despite these falling vocations, the orders are still in control of expansive asset piles amassed when they were more powerful and active in Irish society.

An up-to-date breakdown is not possible to assemble for the majority of, mostly smaller, religious orders with operations in Ireland.

However, precise inventories were released for those groups investigated by Judge Sean Ryan in his inquires into residential child abuse. Seventeen of the 18 orders concerned are outlined here today.

The Sisters of Mercy was detailed yesterday and information on other orders was not available as they were not part of the investigation into residential child sex abuse and therefore did not have to disclose assets to the Government.

However, a historic record of domestic properties and a contemporary examination of current commercial premises revealed that many non-redress orders had or have large property portfolios.

More than 1.5m Valuation Office records show that these are, in most cases, focused in geographic areas where certain orders built up bases.

These include in small numbers, the Bon Secours Sisters in Cork, the Marist community in the north-west, the Brigidine Sisters in the south-east and the Jesuits in Limerick, Galway and Dublin. Others, such as the Franciscan Sisters and Franciscan Brothers, had selective holdings right across the country.

The Ursuline Convent traditionally held assets in Sligo, Tipperary and Waterford.

Details on these orders is limited, save for historic holdings which were held within the 1.5m holding records on the Valuation Office website.

However, the last decade has shown how some these orders have been able to sweat some of their assets.

Again, the 18 orders involved in the redress scheme offered a window into the nature of the trades in their submissions to the Department of Education.

These showed that, along with the Sisters of Mercy, the 17 orders detailed today made a combined €667m in land sales between 1999 and 2009.

On the basis of the traditional ownership records held in Valuation Office and current commercial occupancy data, there were up to 2,900 plots linked to various religious orders, including the 18 involved in redress.

And their current assets also allow them, or people using their properties, to generate revenues.

For instance the Presentation Sisters in Cork made €47,080 in agricultural grants for its land between 2000 and 2010.

Elsewhere, the Department of Education spends €161,000 renting school buildings and land from three religious orders, De La Salle Brothers, Finglas, €85,000; Daughters of Charity Henrietta Street, Dublin, €13,973; Brothers of Charity, Renmore, €62,100.

Last year the Sisters of Charity (€253,670), the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity (€311,394), the Daughters of Charity (€281,423) and the Good Shepherd Sisters (€320,684) all received funding from local authorities for their work in provision of accommodation for homeless people.

Other bodies, such as the Office of Public Works and Department of Agriculture, have receipts for small payments for the use of meeting rooms and conference facilities.

This is all in addition to standard grants for the provision of healthcare, social work and education services.

The sight of sisters and brothers on the corridors of schools and hospitals has diminished.

And the numbers still active in the congregations suggest in many cases the orders are in the process of winding down their assets through the vehicles of trusts, private companies and similarly minded organisations.

However, because some were involved in institutions which have become so strategic, they ensure the legacy of the religious communities continue in the assets they hold.

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