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Grace United pastor buys Leeds church for $17,500

  • Pastor Steve Behlke of Grace United Church, which currently meets at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, placed the winning bid of $17,500 on the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church during an auction Wednesday at the property in Leeds. Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Attendees watch as the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church is auctioned off Oct. 11, 2017 at the property in Leeds. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church is shown Oct. 11, 2017 prior to an auction of the property in Leeds. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Corey Fisher of Aaron Posnik & Co. auctions off the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church Oct. 11, 2017 at the Leeds property. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Pastor Steve Behlke of Grace United Church, which currently meets at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, walks through the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church Oct. 11, 2017 after placing the winning bid on the church for $17,500 during an auction at the property in Leeds. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Pastor Steve Behlke of Grace United Church, which currently meets at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, placed the winning bid for $17,500 on the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church during an auction Oct. 11, 2017 at the property in Leeds. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Pastor Steve Behlke of Grace United Church, which currently meets at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, placed the winning bid for $17,500 on the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church during an auction Oct. 11, 2017 at the property in Leeds. Neighbors to the property Mike MacDonald, left, and Karen Carter wait to greet Behlke following the auction. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The crumbling steps of the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church are shown Oct. 11, 2017 following an auction at the property in Leeds. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The crucifix atop the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church is shown Oct. 11, 2017 following an auction of the property in Leeds. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Attendees converse following the auctioning off of the former St. Catherine of Alexandria Church Oct. 11, 2017 at the property in Leeds. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



@BeraDunau
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — “My wife is gonna kill me.”

These were the fateful words spoken by Steve Behlke, pastor of Grace United Church, after his purchase of the building at 195 Main St. in Leeds that formerly housed St. Catherine of Alexandria Church.

The church was sold for $17,500 Wednesday in an auction in which Behlke was the only bidder. He said his intention is to transform the space into a new home for Grace United, which currently meets at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School.

The auction started around 1 p.m., and was conducted by the Aaron Posnik & Co. auction house. Auctioneer Corey Fisher noted that the property came with a deed restriction, that prevents it being used for purposes contrary to the Catholic Church, to be determined by the Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield. He also said the property was being sold “as is.”

A modest crowd gathered to witness the auction of the church, but almost nobody signed up to bid.

Fisher asked for a starting bid of $20,000, but was met with silence.

“Go ahead, make a bid,” said Fisher. “You all didn’t show up just to hear me read ... that restriction.”

He also noted that it was a “confirmation sale” with representatives on the premises able to approve or reject the sale immediately.

Behlke then bid $15,000, at which point Fisher asked for $16,000.

During the auction Corbin Royce, of Yellowbrick Management, was on the phone discussing the auction.

“Corbin say 16,” said Fisher.

However, he ultimately decided not to place a bid, nor did anyone else present.

At this point Fisher consulted with representatives of the Catholic Church. He then told Behlke that a bid of $17,500 would be accepted. Behlke agreed, bid $17,500 and secured the property.

The sale was also subject to a 5 percent buyer’s premium.

“We were satisfied with today’s results, certainly pleased that this structure will be utilized once again,” said Mark Dupont, spokesman for the diocese, in an emailed statement. “After expenses, all proceeds from today’s auction will be turned over to the successor parish.”

One of the people who came out to see the sale was Karen Carter, a Leeds carpenter who has lived next to the church since 1998.

“A little nervous,” she said when asked how she felt about the building being sold. “They’ve been quiet neighbors for a long time.”

St. Catherine’s, which was established in 1911, was merged with St. Mary’s in Haydenville in 2007, forming the Our Lady of the Hills Parish, which operates out of the former St. Mary’s site.

Carter said she would like to have seen the area made into open space.

“Absolutely,” she said, when asked if there was a part of her that had considered buying the space, but she noted that she didn’t have the funds to do so.

“My pockets aren’t that deep,” she said.

Kevin Hale, a rabbi in Leeds who works as a scribe mainly restoring Torah scrolls, also watched the auction, and said he thought everyone was amazed that the sale price was so low.

“Everyone knows St. Catherine’s,” he said, saying it was sad when it had to close.

“I’m hoping that it will be fixed up and used,” he said.

Grace United Church is a nondenominational church unaffiliated with any national organization. Behlke said the church has about 140 members, has been meeting at Smith Vocational for about three years, and that it has been looking for a home.

“We just heard about it (the auction) this morning,” he said.

He said an architect had declared the church “structurally sound,” and said his church anticipates spending $100,000 to renovate the building. He also said he’d been authorized to bid up to $25,000 for the property.

Behlke said he expects to begin holding services in the church in spring or summer.

“I hope it doesn’t shrink it,” said Behlke, when asked if he thought having a building would grow the congregation, noting that it was “kind of far” from Northampton.

“We’re doing a lot of great stuff,” he said. “And I hope we can do it here.”

Behlke, who rode to the auction on a Triumph Speed Triple, moved to western Massachusetts with his wife, Polly, about 11 years ago from Southern California. He said they did so because they wanted to go to an area without a lot of Christians. He acknowledged missing the weather in Southern California.

“We like the weather down here, too,” Behlke said. “Three seasons.”

As for his wife, Behlke said, she was in favor of the congregation staying in Northampton, and she didn’t know about the sale yet.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.