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Developer to Buy Part of Camarillo Seminary Land

Times Staff Writer

A developer will help ease the financial crunch at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by paying up to $40 million for more than half the hilltop property of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, church officials said Wednesday.

A graduate religious institution known as the St. John’s Seminary Theologate will continue to operate on the grounds. But the undergraduate facility, which closed last year, will be sold, including about 60 acres of citrus groves that cover the campus. An unspecified number of homes is expected to be built there.

Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the sale would increase the graduate school’s $40-million endowment, ending its reliance on the archdiocese for annual loans ranging up to $3 million. Although the archdiocese has been beset with lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests, the sale was not arranged to help pay legal expenses, Tamberg said.

“We’re not contemplating any sale of property for those purposes,” he said.

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A leafy oasis amid subdivisions and strip malls, the 100-acre campus was given to the archdiocese in 1927 by Juan E. Camarillo, a deeply religious, widely traveled member of one of Ventura County’s most prominent ranching dynasties. His grant requires the archdiocese to use the proceeds from selling any of the land for improving the seminary’s buildings or expanding its endowment.

The proposed sale was approved Tuesday by a group of officials from the seminary and the archdiocese convened by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, a St. John’s graduate.

“Many of us, myself included, will miss being able to walk through the tranquil grounds of the college seminary,” Mahony wrote in a statement. “But this sadness at the passing of an era of sorts must be tempered by the realization that the sale of this property will ensure that young men will continue to come to St. John’s Seminary to be formed in prayer, in education and in service.... “

No sale price has been announced, but the archdiocese estimated that the transaction would boost the graduate school’s endowment $12 million to $40 million.

The buyer will be Shea Homes, a Walnut, Calif.-based developer that is working on a 50-home project just east of the seminary.

The company’s owners, John and Dorothy Shea, are longtime donors to Catholic schools. The archdiocese approached them for the project, Mahony said.

A development plan has yet to be formulated, Shea Vice President W. Steven Seemann said, but a zoning change would be required for housing to be built on the property.

If all goes smoothly, Camarillo officials said it still would take three or four years before houses could be built. Community development Director Bob Burrow said Shea representatives told him of their agreement with the archdiocese a few days ago.

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However, the idea of shrinking the campus has been in the air for years.

The undergraduate facility opened in 1961 and in its heyday boasted an enrollment of several hundred young men interested in the priesthood. But within 20 years, enrollment started to decline and never recovered; high school students apparently were not hearing the call in the numbers they once did.

“It was no different from trends throughout the U.S.,” Tamberg said. “The men coming forward for the priesthood tended to be in their late 20s through their 40s. Many already were college graduates.”

The theologate has more than 100 students from various archdioceses, Tamberg said. They study four to five years and earn a master’s degree in theology before being ordained as priests.

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When the undergraduate seminary college closed last spring, its enrollment had declined to about 20.

The seminary college’s buildings -- including three dormitories and a number of classroom structures -- will be razed, Tamberg said. The older buildings on campus, including the stately Doheny Memorial Library, are part of the theologate and will remain untouched.

Although archdiocese officials say the sale is unrelated to sex abuse lawsuits, it will help shore up finances that have been shaky over the last few years. In 2002, the archdiocese laid off 60 employees and cut or reduced numerous programs. At the start of 2003, it faced a $13.4-million shortfall.

How much the lawsuits will ultimately cost the archdiocese is unknown.

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In 2002 and 2003, the archdiocese paid about $9 million in expenses linked to such suits, according to an audit of church finances.

Tamberg said the archdiocese was still in mediation with numerous plaintiffs. Officials believe its insurance policy will cover whatever settlement may be reached, he said.

The policy provides coverage of about $150 million, an attorney for the archdiocese has said.

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Times staff writers Amanda Covarrubias and Gregory W. Griggs contributed to this report.


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