Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in the case of Order of Franciscan Fathers of Green Bay, Wisconsin v. The Board of Property Assessment, Appeals and Review, Borough of Ben Avon, Avonworth School District and the County of Allegheny, No. GD85-14383.
John F. Meck, with him, Robert Stoddart, Houston, Houston & Donnelly, for appellant, Borough of Ben Avon.
Ralph H. German, with him, Paul David Burke, Cooper, German, Kelly & Purcell, P.C., for appellee.
Judges Craig and Doyle, and Senior Judge Kalish, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Craig.
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The Borough of Ben Avon, Avonworth School District, Allegheny County and the county's Board of Property
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Assessment, Appeals and Review, appeal an order by Senior Judge Scheib of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County directing the board to restore the tax-exempt status to property in the Borough of Ben Avon owned by the Order of Franciscan Fathers of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The property had been classified tax-exempt as an institution of purely public charity from 1936 to 1984. The borough successfully challenged the real estate exemption before the board. On appeal by the Fathers, the trial court concluded that the property was a tax-exempt missionary headquarters.
The questions presented in this appeal are (1) whether the work conducted by the religious in the house is the type of missionary activity which qualifies as a charity, and (2) whether the Ben Avon friary is therefore entitled to a property tax exemption as a purely public charity.
The sole witness before the trial court, Father Jerome Staniszewski, O.F.M., testified that he was the Superior of the Ben Avon Friary and was the Director of Missionaries for all of the United States and Canada. As Mission Director, Father Jerome supervises the work of about fifteen missionaries. At the time of the hearing, eight priests and one brother lived at the friary. Some of the priests were involved in local ministries, while others preached missions outside of Pittsburgh. When not traveling, the fathers in the house conducted devotional services in the friary's chapels, and engaged in continuing education and study to prepare for their missions. The Fathers also provided counseling services to lay people who came to the friary.
Father Jerome described his position as Director of Missionaries by saying that he kept in close touch with missionaries on the road, and that he himself often travelled to conduct mission work. The missions themselves are "preaching missions"; announced to the community
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in advance, such a mission consists of inspirational preaching, counseling, the administration of sacraments, and home visits. A mission is aimed both toward members of the local parish and towards persons who have not professed any faith. The missions are the Fathers' only work; they do not engage ...