Jason Olson, Deseret News
This 1.3-acre lot in Provo has stood empty since the St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church was demolished in July of 2007.

PROVO — It's been more than a year since St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church was demolished with the hope its razing would make way for the local parish's new church in Orem.

But the 1.3-acre lot on 200 North and 500 West, where the Spanish mission-style building stood for 84 years, has yet to sell. The deal between the Catholic Church and Lindon-based Landmark Partners LLC, which committed to buy the property for about $1.2 million, fell apart shortly after the building's demolition. And the St. Francis of Assisi parish continues to worship in a gymnasium at 65 E. 500 North in Orem with basketball rims above their heads and hard, concrete floors to kneel on.

"It was a disappointment to us," said parish member Juliana Boerio-Goates when the congregation learned the sale wouldn't go through. "We've been waiting a long time."

And it appears the parish might have to wait a while longer for the land to sell. Tom George, a real estate broker acting as the church's agent, said he's had several groups express interest in the ground, but no serious offers.

"We're kind of at an impasse," he said.

But members of St. Francis of Assisi parish aren't the only ones who still feel a tinge of disappointment. Local residents who labored for months in an attempt to preserve the church still mourn the historic Provo building's loss, including Tom Heal, who acted as real estate consultant for Historic Provo Preservation Foundation, which spearheaded efforts to preserve the church.

"We tried to tell them, 'Don't tear the building down,"' Heal recalls saying to the Catholic Church. "But they did, and now they didn't get their money."

It appears to be a deal that left everyone involved unfulfilled.

In May 2000, St. Francis of Assisi parish moved from its Provo location — first constructed in 1923 — and moved north to Orem with the hope it would be able to sell the property to fund construction of a new church adjacent to their current place of worship, said Boerio-Goates.

Years passed, and parties interested in the old Provo church property appeared from time to time. Then, it seemed the parish's dream of a chapel with capacity for 1,200 was close to fruition when Landmark Partners approached the Catholic Church with an offer to pay $1.2 million contingent on being able to tear down the building and put up condominiums.

The Rev. Mike Sciumbato, the parish priest at the time, approached the Provo Landmarks Commission to request St. Francis be delisted from the city's landmark register — a status the parish didn't seek and didn't want in the first place. The commission voted 4-1 against delisting, and the matter went before Provo City Council on Feb. 7, 2007.

Meanwhile, a group including historic preservationists and central Provo activists formed and tried to raise funds to spare the church building from the wrecker's ball. The council voted to give the preservationists until April 3, 2007 — 54 days — to come up with the money to buy the church along with the property. When that deadline arrived, the City Council was poised to delist the church from the registry, but a last-minute deal granted a reprieve until April 19, 2007.

According to the deal, the preservation foundation agreed to pay $1.25 million, with $50,000 going to Landmark Partners and $1.2 million going to the Catholic Church. If the deadline wasn't met, the church would automatically come off the Landmark Registry, and the foundation agreed not to seek legal action.

When the day of reckoning arrived, the preservationists claimed they had $1.3 million placed in escrow, but they couldn't transfer the funds to complete the purchase. As a result, St. Francis Roman Catholic Church came off the registry, and it was demolished July 9, 2007.

To this day, there's still a dispute about what happened on the date of the final deadline. Heal still has a copy of an e-mail from Cole Fowler of Inwest Title, stating he received $1.3 million on April 19, 2007, from numerous wires dealing with the Provo Historic Foundation. But an attorney representing Landmark Partners said the foundation showed them no concrete proof of funds by the deadline at 5:30 p.m.

At the time, parish members expressed sadness at seeing a building where they worshiped for many years destroyed, but they saw the building's passing as an important step toward constructing their new Orem church.

But shortly after the demolition, the deal between Landmark Partners and the Catholic Church fell apart.

Preservationists continue to wonder why the Catholic Church demolished the building before the deal was sealed.

"Why did you allow them to tear that building down before you got your money?" Heal asked. "I don't get it."

The Rev. Sciumbato has since left St. Francis Assisi parish and moved up to Salt Lake City. He declined a Deseret News request for an interview on the church property.

"I'm not even involved there anymore," he said before hanging up the phone.

Edward Vozar of Landmark Partners couldn't be reached for comment. But Adam Ford, who acted as legal counsel for Landmark Partners last year, said the group never had the property under contract, and they decided not to go through with the deal for a number of factors.

"There was no rancor between the Catholic Church and Landmark Partners," he said.

George said the property where the old church house once stood is a split-zone parcel, the corner piece is zoned for commercial use, and the entire property would need to be rezoned. He said Landmark Partners backed out of the deal because of too much opposition from the city and neighborhood.

"This has been one great big fat pain," he said of the process to sell the land.

Neighborhood Chairman Scott Bingham, who actively participated in efforts to preserve the church building, confirmed the local neighborhood would "stringently" oppose any efforts to rezone the property, but not out of spite for the razing of St. Francis.

"We feel an encroachment of commercial property on our quiet little neighborhood," he said. "Not because we were against the Catholic Church or against Landmark Partners doing a development."

So now the parish is left to wait, George said.

"We're waiting for the right buyer with enough money and enough commitment to take on the neighbors and the city," he said. "Now the neighbors can stare at a hole for a while."

But Boerio-Goates said the parish has stopped hitching their star on the sale of the building. Now they're doing what they can to raise money for their new church, hosting food sales and other fundraising events.

"We're doing something," she said. "We're doing something positive."

The parish will need to raise 60 percent of the cost of building before a new church is approved. The Rev. David Bittmenn, the new parish priest, said a few members are understandably disappointed the new church hasn't been built by now, but mostly they're intent on taking matters into their own hands.

"We know it will happen," he said. "And we're just trying to make it sooner rather than later."


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