Marist Tempest

As a grand building crumbles, politicians bicker, and the diocese shrugs

Even in its wounded state—corners tumbling, clay walls draped in fluttering tarps—the historic Marist College exudes a dignity sometimes lacking in the human wrangling over its fate.

The latest dust-up centers on whether taxpayer dollars, in the form of federal grants, should be used to restore the once-elegant downtown building owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson—a structure about which the diocese obviously does not care a whit, having let it sink into terrible disrepair since vacating the premises in 2002.

This question is particularly poignant in the current tough times, when that $1.1 million—in the form of a federal Community Development Block Grant for blight abatement—could instead be steered to things like household repairs for struggling citizens.

In the meantime, having spent a wad of cash resolving lawsuits brought by victims of pedophile priests, the diocese says it's both unable and unwilling to help.

Still, these hard economic times will eventually soften, and the church scandal will someday fade. But if elegant old Marist College falls to the wrecking ball, a remarkable piece of our past will be gone for good.

That specter lurked like sodden adobe on July 10, as the Tucson City Council chewed over steering a substantial slice of CDBG money toward rescuing the Marist. Normally, the process of dicing these funds manifests all the passion of a Lawrence Welk rerun. But toss the Catholic Church into the mix, and things get hinky fast.

Not that Albert Elias didn't try prodding the parley onto positive turf. As director of the city's Housing and Community Development Department, he's the man most credited with lining up that million-plus for Marist. And at the meeting, he noted how the council had actually already approved the expenditure, as part of the "action plan" for spending U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds allotted to Tucson for fiscal year 2012.

He quickly added that the mayor and council can, at any time, "amend that annual action plan that we submit to HUD in order to shift CDBG funds if that's the desire of the council."

Several council members had already raised a fuss over what would happen to that money should the cash-strapped diocese decide to sell the Marist College after it had been rescued by taxpayers. Elias said agreements with the diocese could ensure that proceeds from any sale would return to the city as "CDBG program income." He added that the city could obtain a conservation easement for the façade of the building, to preserve the features of Marist that earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, describing himself as "very torn" over the issue, asked about other needs for those CDBG funds. Elias responded that they could address countless other needs, from emergency repairs for homeowners to improving neighborhoods.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero then made a motion that included the points detailed by Elias—including giving the city a right to block the sale of Marist to an unworthy buyer, and the option to take title of the property if it didn't sell.

The latter is not an idle concern. Although the Downtown Tucson Partnership, the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation and other folks have tried to stoke business-community enthusiasm for turning Marist into a boutique hotel, a restaurant or even offices, the response has been tepid. Of course, that's not particularly surprising for a building marked by gaping holes and ugly tarps. Their hopes are that, with money spent on stabilizing the building, it will become more attractive for business investment.

That step now seems underway, when Romero's motion passed after being freighted with numerous provisos to protect the city's interests.

And so, at least tentatively, the Marist lives on. So it should, say the many fans of a landmark erected in 1915 by master builder Manuel Flores. Today, it remains Arizona's only surviving three-story adobe.

It was long operated by the Marist Brothers of the Schools, a Catholic religious order founded by French priest Marcellin Champagnat in 1817. The order's original calling was to educate the impoverished children of France, a progressive mission that was eventually carried worldwide. Marist College was integrated, at a time when most Tucson schools were anything but.

In turn, this latest political dust-up laid bare a trenchant resentment over the diocese's failure to value its own building, thereby compelling the city to spend precious grant money to keep Marist from tumbling down. "The Catholic Church has neglected it for a decade," said Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik, contacted several days after the council meeting. "If they were serious about this building, they could cancel one of their pro-life ad blitzes and pay for it in a heartbeat."

Instead, the cost will be picked up by taxpayers. "And that money could legitimately be used for housing rehabilitation, rental assistance or lead-paint abatement," he says. "We have a waiting list of people waiting for that type of assistance right now."

But according to diocese spokeswoman Steff Koeneman, the diocese has gone to great lengths to preserve Marist, pitching in with thousands of dollars to stabilize the crumbling corners, and negotiating in good faith to get it restored.

However, she's quick to admit the church doesn't place a premium on the college. "We aren't going to have any need for the structure," she says. "The only reason we're going through all of this is because we know that factions of the community want to keep the building up. We're definitely not trying to make any money on the building. We're not developers."

In a sense, the venerable old building could be considered yet another victim of the pedophile scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. Consider that the diocese—facing 22 lawsuits alleging the sexual abuse of children by predatory priests—filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004, and established a $22.4 million pool to resolve those cases.

Still, that's not the only bitter legacy revived by the Marist fight. Just ask Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero, who sees preservation of the old building as recompense for the sins of the 1960s, when most of the Hispanic barrios surrounding it were razed in the name of urban renewal.

Romero says it's only right that federal blight-abatement money, which was used for the barrio's destruction, should now help.

"The argument is that the diocese could have restored the Marist College," she says. "Well, you know, they didn't. Does that mean we're just going to see it crumble this monsoon season?"

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