WAREHAM, Mass. – The stretch of shoreline owned by a Massachusetts religious order is a place where even the sounds add to the stillness. Bells jangle on buoys as birds chatter and the tide slides in a soft rush past scattered clammers.
"It's a refuge of silence," said the Rev. Stan Kolasa, director of a retreat center on the Buzzards Bay property. "It's holy. This is holy ground."
It's also protected ground. Kolasa's Roman Catholic order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, sold development rights on 100 acres of its property for $3.6 million. It's now a key piece of the Great Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, which opens to the public this fall.
Deals to buy religious land, or its development rights, are being made with the help of conservationists from Washington state to Colorado and New Jersey. In a tough economy, such land is a tempting asset for churches and religious orders to trade for solvency. But many are choosing to conserve it, sometimes for less money than private developers would offer.
"There's a rising consciousness among a lot of different religious groups that the environment is very important," said Kathy McGrath of the Religious Land Conservancy Project. Some, she said, "think about land conservation as a spiritual activity."
"We've recognized that we have more common ground than we ever knew we had," Kathy Sferra of Mass Audubon, which helped secure the Sacred Hearts' contract and will manage the sanctuary.
But even with two willing parties, religious land deals aren't easy.
It can take years to get consensus from a religious group, approval from various levels of government and funding from different private and public sources. And with public funds for conservation land getting more scarce, it's tough to seal any type of conservation purchase and the opportunities to buy don't last forever, said Joe Martens of the Open Space Institute, which has purchased religious properties along the Hudson River.
The properties can be expensive and complex, particularly if there's a building like an old monastery included in the sale, Martens said.
"I think that there's lots of them out there. I think the conservation community ... (is) really concerned about the futures of the properties," Martens said. "In my opinion, there's not enough money in the system right now."
Financial pressures from declining attendance or clergy are a key reason religious groups put land on the market in the first place.
It's no coincidence Catholic groups have been involved in many of the recent deals. Statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University show that since 1965, the number of religious brothers has dropped 62 percent (12,271 to 4,690). Over the same period the number of religious sisters has plummeted 68 percent (179,954 to 57,444).
McGrath said an order's land, often left through bequest, can become a burden, and selling the land or development rights is an attractive way to ease that strain. Plus, it can provide money to take care of aging members and continue their mission.
"As time goes on and the orders age, (the pressure to sell) gets more and more acute," McGrath said.
Kolasa said the Sacred Hearts order decided to sell its development rights after its membership dropped from 100 to 40 in recent decades and it began to focus more on developing on the 67-year-old retreat center and less on its overseas missions.
The $3.6 million it received for the development rights is seed money for a broad expansion aimed at helping the center and property reach more people, Kolasa said.
"We want to give (the land) in such a way that people's visions, people's spirits, people's hopes and dreams, they're changed," he said.
Sacred Hearts' land was worth $15 to $18 million to private developers, according to officials from groups involved in the deal, including Mass Audubon and the Wareham Land Trust. Such bargains from religious groups aren't uncommon, but plenty also command full price for their land.
John Keenan, director of land preservation at the New Jersey chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said the $2 million they agreed to pay the Diocese of Camden for 493 acres in Cumberland County was market value. Last month, the conservancy closed on the first phase of the deal, which makes the land part of the Manumuskin River Preserve — a vast mix of forests, meadows, swamps and tidal marsh.
Jim Ennis, executive Director of the Catholic Rural Life Conference, said good stewardship for religious groups can sometimes mean getting top price for their property.
"They have to be prudent and make decisions on what's best for the order," he said.
Chris Kay of The Trust for Public Land said his group is selective about pursuing any property, weighing factors such as the parcel's impact on drinking water, whether it can be part of a larger conservation area and how frequently it can be used. Several religious sites have fit the bill.
In New Castle, Del., the trust is helping the city buy a 42-acre parcel that an Episcopal church has owned since 1719 to preserve open space in the town center. In Westminster, Colo., it's working with the Sisters of the New Covenant Catholic order to sell 25 acres for open space. In Washington State, Tall Timber Ranch is working with the trust to save the land and secure its future.
Tall Timber is a Presbyterian camp, built in 1957 at the convergence of the White and Napeequa rivers. It welcomes up to 6,000 guests a year, but it's also facing financial strain as attendance in mainline denominations drops, and churches struggle just to pay for their own operations, said co-director Becky Fishburn.
In a deal Fishburn expects will close next month, Tall Timber sold development rights on two 20-acre riverfront parcels for $400,000. The money will establish an endowment to help the camp pay for its future operations, while helping preserving the pristine rivers as place the salmon can run God's voice can be heard, she said.
"I believe deeply that, as human beings, we are wired, in many ways, to respond to God's voice," Fishburn said. "We need places of peace and quiet and tranquility in order to connect with that."
Religious Land Conservancy Project: http://www.crystalspring.org/html/religlands.html
The Trust for Public Land: http://www.tpl.org/
The Nature Conservancy: http://www.nature.org/
Eds: Corrects name of conservation area in third paragraph, clarifies Mass Audubon's role in managing it.