On holy ground

The fight over St. Ann's snares the city, Hispanics, and the Catholic diocese in a battle that tests Dallas' commitment to preserving its past

Dallas Plan Commissioner Rick Leggio doesn't have any doubts about the purpose of a letter he received last month from a member of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas days before commissioners were to vote on a plan to designate St. Ann's building a historic landmark over the church's objections.

In his curt, two-page missive, J. Oliver McGonigle, a member of the diocese's finance council, warned that if the diocese suffered financially as a result of the commissioners' decision, he would have little choice but to recommend that it sue the city and seek the "highest possible" damage award.

"I don't think it's right that plan commissioners or council members get threatened in writing," says Leggio, who was appointed to the commission by city council member John Loza, a leading proponent of preserving St. Ann's, once the site of a school. "I don't know how many hundreds of cases we do a year, and I have never received a written threat. I didn't like that."

A longtime political strategist, Leggio has seen his share of hardballs, so he didn't hesitate to swing at McGonigle's pitch: He sent the letter to The Dallas Morning News and, two days before the commission voted to approve designation, McGonigle's litigious thoughts were a matter of public record.

To those who want to save St. Ann's, chiefly Hispanics who remember the school's role in what was once Dallas' Little Mexico neighborhood, the news confirmed their increasingly sour perception of the diocese as an inflexible bureaucracy more concerned with its assets than with the desires of its flock.

Since the diocese was handed an $11.3 million bill for its share of the verdict in the case of child-molesting priest Rudy Kos last spring, it had turned down several offers from the Hispanic community to buy St. Ann's, arguing it could get more money from private developers who would ultimately raze the building. Now, the diocese was escalating the conflict by threatening to sue.

News of McGonigle's letter was a minor public relations disaster for the church, prompting spokeswoman Lisa LeMaster to dismiss it as an unfortunate mistake, borne out of McGonigle's frustration with the diocese's tenuous financial condition. It is an argument LeMaster still makes.

"The bishop and the team all want to work toward some kind of a political solution as opposed to a legal solution," LeMaster says. "We have not been trying to thrust around our legal weight."

The diocese is understandably leery of looking like a bully as it struggles to right Kos' wrongs. Nevertheless, its lawyers are considering their options in the event St. Ann's is made a landmark by the city council later this month. And though the city's attorneys say the council has the authority to save St. Ann's under its preservation ordinance, the case may not be so easy to defend if the diocese takes the city to court.

The church's lawyers may soon argue that the drive to preserve St. Ann's began as an outright effort to force the church to sell the building at a bargain-basement price.

Unable to raise the $4 million the diocese wants for the property, St. Ann's defenders are using the preservation ordinance to block its sale to Swiss developer Harwood Pacific, which has steadily been developing that corridor of Dallas since the early 1980s. Using the city's preservation ordinance to gain advantage in a real estate deal is a unique use of the law--and unique uses of the law tend to wind up being haggled over in court.

Those same courts have long recognized that cities have the right to preserve landmark buildings, even if the owners object. But just how high-handed the government can be--unless it's willing to compensate property owners--is unclear, particularly when the owner is a church with a proven record of employing lawyers to defend its religious freedom.

Indeed, the church could well argue that if the city can force it to preserve St. Ann's for the public's sake, then the public should bear the burden of repairing and maintaining the building as the ordinance requires.

To muddy waters further, Gov. George W. Bush is pushing legislation designed to protect religious freedom from government meddling. The legislation comes in response to a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that nullified the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 in a case that pitted the Archdiocese of San Antonio against the Hill Country town of Boerne over that city's historic-preservation ordinance.

If the fate of St. Ann's has become a test of the diocese's future relationship with its Hispanic parishioners, it's likely to test Dallas' commitment to historic preservation as well.

Since the historic-preservation ordinance was passed in 1973, most designated buildings were preserved because of their architectural value and with the consent of their owners. The 72-year-old St. Ann's, located on Harry Hines Boulevard along the entrance of the Dallas North Tollway, would become the first building made a landmark because of its role as the cultural heart of the city's first Hispanic neighborhood.

Now St. Ann's supporters and private developers alike are waiting to see whether city officials are willing to go to court to defend their ordinance and, in a sense, their commitment to preserving the city's past. The question city officials must first answer is whether St. Ann's is worth the risk.

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