WALTHAM — Could eminent domain spell the end of the earthly domain of a tiny order of Catholic priests in Waltham?
Not if the Rev. Robert S. White — and his legal team — has anything to say about it.
White, the head of the Stigmatine Fathers and Brothers, is threatening to go to court after the Waltham City Council voted last month to take the Stigmatines’ bucolic 46-acre property to build a campus-style high school for the city’s rapidly expanding student population. In exchange for giving up their land, the priests would receive $18 million.
White says his order, which was founded in Verona, Italy, in 1816 and counts 15 priests in the United States and 500 worldwide, is not interested in the money and wants to remain on the prime, hilltop real estate that has been its American headquarters since 1923.
Though the Stigmatines have just six priests in Waltham — including four who live in a retirement home on the property — White says the land, dotted with statuary, is an important part of the order’s history and an ideal setting for the monthly marriage preparatory classes and occasional Catholic retreats it hosts.
“This would threaten our existence, our life as a community, because it takes away our identity here,” White said. “This is where we’ve been known, and where we’ve been identified, and it would be very challenging to try to recreate it.”
Some Waltham residents who use the Stigmatines’ large retreat center for Tuesday night prayer meetings say they are outraged.
“They’re destroying a ministry that would be a blessing for generations forthcoming, and that’s what really grieves me about this whole thing,” said Page Vandewater, a retired nurse who credits the Stigmatines with saving her life and her marriage.
“It’s totally unnecessary, and whenever you kick somebody under the bus, no good comes of it.”
Mayor Jeanette A. McCarthy and other city officials did not respond to multiple e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
Supporters of the new high school say both the School Committee and a separate School Building Committee spent three years researching possible locations for a new high school before identifying the Stigmatine site as the only one large enough to accommodate the city’s ambitious plans for a state-of-the-art campus.
Residents said the search process was challenging because the city has undergone a commercial building boom that has snapped up available land, even as Waltham’s student enrollment has grown by nearly one-fifth over the past decade.
“It comes down to a problem of planning and unchecked development – that’s what has led us to this,” said John Saxe, a parent of two Waltham public school students, who has been active in the movement to build a new school.
He called the City Council’s 10-4 vote to take the land — at a special session packed with parents holding signs in support of the project — difficult but courageous.
“I don’t see this as being highly unusual or aggressive or anything like that,” Saxe said. “It’s just a tool municipalities have to do what they need to do to meet the needs of the citizenry, and that’s what’s happening in Waltham.”
Massachusetts cities and towns have broad powers to seize land as long as they show that it is in the public interest and compensate the property owner for the land’s fair market value. And other cities and towns have used, or threatened to use, eminent domain to acquire land for schools, roads, and sewer lines. But it is unusual for a municipality to seize such a large tract of private property.
Waltham officials have said they used their eminent domain powers only after the Stigmatines violated an agreement with the city not to accept offers from other developers or market the land.
The Stigmatines acknowledge that, in 2015, they hired a property management company to gauge interest in the site from developers, one of whom suggested buying the land for $24 million and building at least 450 units of multifamily rental housing there.
White insists, however, that the Stigmatines were only exploring their options, and never intended to sell the property.
“We never had that in the plans, and no one has been able to believe us, no matter how many times we’ve denied that,” he said. “We have no agreement, no secret plan, no hidden agenda. We’ve been honest and forthright about that. But people have been frightened by the thought of 500 apartments being put here.”
To stop Waltham from taking the land, the Stigmatines’ lawyers warned this month that they plan to sue city officials in Middlesex Superior Court.
The lawyers accuse city officials of acting “in bad faith,” saying that they used eminent domain as a tactic to bully the Stigmatines into selling their land to the city and that they violated their right to sell it to private developers.
The lawyers also accuse the city of failing to submit a legally required relocation plan for the priests before approving the use of eminent domain.
“The process can only be described as sinister,” the Stigmatines’ lawyers, Peter E. Flynn and Adam B. Paton, wrote in a sharply worded letter to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Some in Waltham believe both sides may be posturing. Some speculate that the priests’ threats to sue may be designed to pressure the city into increasing the amount it will offer the Stigmatines for their land.
Saxe said the city’s approval of eminent domain could also strengthen Waltham’s bargaining position if it wants to persuade the Stigmatines to enter into a sale.
But Paton said the Stigmatines are not interested in a deal.
“The land is not for sale — at any price,” he said.