Looking a $19-million gift horse in the mouth

Stephen McCasey, Magna’s director of architecture, shows off a model of the church that Frank Stronach offered to build in Aurora. (Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail)


The Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto has refused a new church and land being offered by auto magnate Frank Stronach


From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail

June 3, 2008 at 4:10 AM EDT

There is a poignant moment in the story of auto-parts billionaire Frank Stronach’s struggle to give the gift of a church to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto – a church and seven acres of prime land in total valued at $19-million.

It takes place a few months ago. The 75-year-old founder of Magna International is discussing the project with his long-time confidant Dennis Mills, a senior executive in the Magna corporate group.

Mr. Mills says to him, “Frank, maybe we should just walk from this.”

Mr. Stronach shakes his head and replies, “Dennis, I’m not doing this for the archdiocese. I’m doing it for this guy.” And with an index finger he gestures heavenward. He means God. But God would appear to be either not paying attention – so far, at any rate – or seriously conflicted. Or acting in mysterious ways.

Because after two years’ work on a design for a new church of Our Lady of Grace in the wealthy bedroom suburb of Aurora – with Mr. Stronach, who is not a churchgoer, spontaneously raising his proffered donation from $500,000 to $1-million to writing a cheque for the entire cost in addition to providing the land – Archbishop Thomas Collins murmurs thanks but no thanks, and the parish priest, Rev. Tim Hanley, is instructed to write to church members telling them the Stronach offer is unacceptable.

Which has left bad feelings in both the parish church and Magna’s nearby corporate headquarters.

Our Lady of Grace is a wealthy parish on Yonge Street about 50 kilometres north of downtown Toronto. The church is bursting at the seams. There’s no room on the site to increase the church size.

One of the parishioners who lives close to Mr. Stronach in Aurora approached him one evening at the Magna Golf Club and asked if he had land he might sell.

Mr. Stronach became instantly – and increasingly – interested in the project, even getting his own architect to design the building.

Mr. Mills suggested it had become a part of the auto-parts magnate’s inner journey. He formed a close personal bond and partnership on the project with the parish’s then-pastor, Rev. Don MacLean.

Everything was bouncing along on track until Father MacLean retired about 18 months ago. Archbishop Collins was named by the Pope to take over the archdiocese – the largest in Canada with 225 parishes – and Father Hanley was appointed the new pastor at Our Lady of Grace.

There was a lunch attended by Mr. Stronach, Mr. Mills, the archbishop and Father Hanley and other Magna and archdiocesan officials. And according to Mr. Mills, “things got a little edgy.” They’ve been edgy ever since.

Diocesan spokesperson Neil McCarthy has scotched one rumour – that the gift was turned down because Mr. Stronach’s daughter Belinda, the Liberal MP for Newmarket-Aurora, holds views on abortion and same-sex marriage that are opposed to church teaching. “Absolutely not,” Mr. McCarthy said.

He has thrown cold water on hints from some parishioners that Father Hanley vetoed the gift out of some personal animosity toward the businessman and his company. Mr. McCarthy said the final decision was made at the archdiocesan level.

The reasons given by Father Hanley and the archdiocese state variously that Mr. Stronach insisted on exterior architectural control and having a major say on what the inside would look like, proposed a building that was too grand, refused to give the parishioners sufficient input, and rejected a proposal from the archdiocese that he only provide funds matching whatever the congregation raised and not pay for the whole thing.

John McGrath, the archdiocesan chancellor of temporal affairs, said the archdiocese was uneasy with Mr. Stronach putting up all the money for the project and leaving the parishioners with no sense of ownership of the new church on Stronach-donated land about two kilometres from the current church.

Mr. Mills say all those reasons are inaccurate.

“We were servants to the pastor, the parishioners and the guidelines [on building new churches],” he said. “The only direction Frank gave was let’s do something that inspires and isn’t an army barracks. This was the most pure moment of giving of all the various gifts I’ve participated in with Frank.”

It has to a degree fractured the parish, some of whose members have rejected the actions of their priest and the archdiocese and are meeting tonight with Magna director of architecture Stephen McCasey to continue discussing the Stronach church plan.

Mr. Mills says Mr. Stronach is still open-minded to any proposal. The archdiocese says he’s not. Only God likely knows where the truth is.



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