Bay churches’ hot property

Michael Kimberley and Lee-Anne Butler

CHURCHES in Nelson Mandela Bay control extensive property empires which are worth a combined R850-million.

More than 650 properties around the Bay make up the staggering sum. These properties include businesses, farms, old age homes, luxury houses, vacant plots and places of worship.

This was revealed after an analysis of data from more than 258 000 entries on the municipal property register.

The register is freely available on the municipal website.

Although there are about 400 churches in the Bay, the bulk of property is owned by three churches: the Old Apostolic Church owns property valued at R91-million, the collective Dutch Reformed Church owns R72-million worth of property and a conglomerate of Catholic churches owns R51-million in properties. The Old Apostolic Church is a chiliastic sect with historical roots in the Catholic Apostolic and New Apostolic churches.

It owns 56 properties around the Bay, according to the property register.

This includes 34 churches, 10 vacant plots, a farm and 10 homes. But the church remains secretive about its portfolio.

The church’s head evangelist, Marius van Huyssteen, said the institution’s property portfolio was private.

"I can’t comment on anything about this. It is a private matter. We will not discuss it with the media,” he said.

Taking up the biggest chunk of the Old Apostolic Church’s portfolio is a R8.3-million piece of land housing a school in Bethelsdorp.

The church’s most expensive home is in Lorraine with a municipal price tag of R1.9-million.

The cheapest piece of land is valued at R40 000 and is located in Korsten.

The property register states the Korsten land is vacant.

A high-placed religious leader from another institution, who did not want to be named, said the Old Apostolic Church had grown in stature since it was founded in the Bay about 40 years ago.

"Some of the churches build up these portfolios over many, many years but this church has surpassed some of the oldest, like the Catholics and Methodists, in a few short years. Who knows how they did it?” he said.

The church’s finance officer, who would only give his name as Olsen, said: "I cannot confirm anything about the property. We do not speak of this.”

When asked how the church built up the portfolio, he said: "We, as the church, work through evangelism where we go out to preach the gospel. I can’t say more than that.”

He declined to comment further. The Dutch Reformed Church’s R72-million property portfolio includes churches and homes, with most located in Uitenhage, Despatch and Hunter’s Retreat.

But the group’s most highly priced property is the Fernglen church in Broadway Avenue.

The property register records the Fernglen church with a market value of R7.9-million.

The Dutch Reformed Church also owns two vacant pieces of land in KwaNobuhle and Motherwell, collectively worth R320 000, according to the property register. Dutch Reformed Church Eastern Cape branch director Danie Mouton said properties mainly consisted of church buildings such as houses of worship, parsonages and church halls.

"It is very important to remember that these properties are not owned for their commercial value, or as an investment portfolio. They were built and are being maintained for religious worship and spiritual ministry,” he said.

"Many of these buildings are beacons of hope, not only for members of the NG Kerk, but also for the surrounding community.

"A mere three examples to make the point: a congregation in Sidwell runs a soup kitchen from their church hall; in downtown Port Elizabeth a congregation uses its building for adult basic education; in Algoa Park a holiday youth programme invites kids and keeps them busy.”

Mouton said all properties were owned by individual congregations, so "you should not think of the list as a single portfolio”.

"The value of the evaluation list also reflects normal escalation, as many of the buildings were built decades ago.”

A Catholic conglomerate is in third place and made up of all Catholic churches in the city and the diocese that oversees all Catholic parishes in the Bay. Properties include a creche in Arcadia, six houses, vacant land and 25 churches.

About 11 of the churches in Port Elizabeth are worth more than R1.8-million.

The most expensive property is the Presbytery Sacred Heart on Cape Road with a market value of R4.7-million.

The diocese’s financial administrator, Frank Wightman, said the market values for the properties from the municipality were too high. "We are concerned and will be objecting to some of the property evaluations done by the municipality.”

Wightman said the churches did not have the same value as commercial properties because they were difficult to sell.

He said the church did not buy property as an investment.

"The creche forms part of the church’s pastoral work. We invest in projects like that for the people.”

He said the houses were used by the parish priests.

The Methodist Church owns land that houses seven old age homes from Walmer to Parsonsvlei.

The total value of the seven pieces of land is R11-million, according to the municipal evaluation roll.

But Methodist Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa disagreed with the market values.

"The homes are run as non-profit organisations to provide affordable, secure and caring accommodation for the elderly.”

According to the municipal property register the following churches make up the remaining top 10:

● The Anglican Church with R41-million;

● The Assemblies of God with R19.3-million;

● The Union Congregational Church with R19-million;

● The Harvest Christian Fellowship with R17-million;

● The Baptist Church with R7.2-million; and

● The Seventh Day Adventist Church with R6.7-million. While estate agents in the Bay expressed surprise when told about the combined R850-million property portfolio, the Universal Council of churches said it was expected.

Universal Council of Churches Eastern Cape chairman the Rev Mpumelelo Qwabaza said some of the older churches had had many years to build up extensive portfolios.

"In the past, financial support would come from outside the country. This money was used to buy land.”

But Qwabaza said in recent years funding had started to dry up.

"Most of the churches are struggling and can’t even afford to buy a small piece of land.”

He said there were some new churches around that bought property but they were few and far between.

This is a version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, March 29, 2013.