SALEM — The former St. Mary's Italian Church is for sale.
Mark Cote, executive director of the Salem Mission, now known as Lifebridge, made the surprise announcement yesterday, saying the nonprofit organization has hired commercial real estate appraisers to set a price on the 1925 church building. The property will go on the market "as soon as we determine a value," Cote said.
This unexpected move comes just weeks after the shelter agency learned it was not selected in the latest round of state funding for its controversial plan to convert St. Mary's into 20 studio apartments for the homeless. It had applied for $2.9 million from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.
The operators of the city's homeless shelter say they remain committed to expanding their housing program, and expect to reapply for state funds in September. Between now and Aug. 1, they said they will entertain bids for the church.
"We have a window here of six months," Cote said. "... And if somebody is interested in stepping up and preserving that building for the city and community, then we're all for it."
Cote said they are "open to any and all bids and proposals."
This announcement of a possible church sale comes amid several developments.
On Monday, the church's boiler "basically died," Cote said. That event could speed up plans to relocate the thrift store, which is now in the church basement.
Shelter officials say the largely vacant church building needs maintenance and is costly to keep open. The annual oil bill alone is about $12,000, Cote said.
"Since (the state) did not fund us in this round, our intention all along was to mothball the church, and that is the direction we are heading," he said.
On Feb. 24, Jessica Herbert, vice chairwoman of the Salem Historical Commission, will make a pitch to the shelter board about an alternative expansion plan.
Last fall, the commission urged the Salem Mission to consider putting an addition above its Margin Street shelter, the former St. Mary's Youth Center, and to spare the church, which it said could be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The City Council and a neighborhood group also strongly oppose the plan to use the church for housing.
A member of a local arts group, which showed interest in the church last year and even held small fundraisers, greeted the announcement as good news.
"I'll be interested in seeing what they're asking," said Joe Cultrera, a documentary filmmaker who grew up in the Italian neighborhood around the church and pushed the idea of locating an arts center there as a way to save the church.
"I've been saying all along that if they are really putting it out for sale and are serious about that, then it will make it easier for us (to raise funds) because our whole problem was convincing people they were serious about selling it," he said.
St. Joseph's Food Pantry, which recently announced it is looking for a new home, said it also may be interested.
"We might look at that, but we are looking at a couple of other things in the city," said Veann Campbell, the pantry's director.
Of course, the sales price may turn out to be well beyond what any of the local nonprofits can afford.
In 2004, the Salem Mission paid $2 million for the St. Mary's property, which included the church, the youth center and two small apartment buildings. At the time, the church was estimated to represent about $550,000 of that deal.
Six years later, that value has likely changed. In addition, the church has sat largely vacant, needs repairs and is now surrounded by new neighbors: a homeless shelter and two small apartment buildings with housing for the formerly homeless.
If St. Mary's is sold, it won't be a first for the shelter. When it moved to this site, it had to sell its longtime home, the Crombie Street Church, which was turned into condominiums.