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Billionaire Philanthropist’s Nonprofit To Buy Storied Hell’s Kitchen Church

338-342 West 53rd St.

The Archdiocese of New York has agreed to sell the historic Church of St. Benedict The Moor in Hell’s Kitchen to a charitable foundation founded by Taiwanese billionaire Walter Wang.

The JMM Charitable Foundation has agreed to pay $16M in cash for 338-342 West 53rd St., which includes the 154-year-old church building and the parish and rectory next door, according to documents filed with the New York County Supreme Court. 

In all, there are three empty buildings on two tax lots arranged over a single zoning lot, according to marketing materials from the seller’s broker, Denham Wolf Real Estate Services.

Under the terms of the purchase sale agreement, the foundation has agreed to keep the church building for at least 20 years and not make any exterior renovations other than material modifications. There are no restrictions on what can happen to the parish building and rectory on the other lot in the purchase.

The church was built in 1869 as Second Evangelical Church, but was purchased by the archdiocese in 1896. St. Benedict the Moor was the first Black Roman Catholic congregation north of the Mason-Dixon Line when it was founded in 1883 on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, moving to Hell's Kitchen 13 years later.

"This was the steppingstone for Blacks from the Village to Harlem,'' Bishop Emerson J. Moore said during a centennial mass for the church in 1983, according to The New York Times. The adjacent parish and rectory building was built in 1967.

It was deconsecrated in 2017, and the Archdiocese of New York decreed it could be sold. A Community Board 4 committee agreed at the time to send a letter to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to request the church be landmarked, according to Patch.

Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan consented to the sale in documents filed with the court. The church filed a petition with the court to approve the sale in accordance with the state's Religious Corporations Law. It said a Cushman & Wakefield appraisal found the property to have a value of $12.7M.

The property, which sits between Eighth and Ninth avenues, has around 19K SF of excess development rights, according to the marketing brochure. The property was pitched to religious organizations, educational institutions, mixed-use developers or performing arts organizations, presenting “a prime opportunity for an owner-user to update the spaces or a developer to undertake a unique adaptive reuse project incorporating significant unused development rights.”

Zoning rules allowed for the redevelopment of the rectory and parish house, while keeping the existing church for adaptive reuse. A message left for the secretary and treasurer of the church's board of trustees wasn't returned.

Wang, who leads the JMM Foundation, is the CEO of JM Eagle, the world’s largest manufacturer of plastic and PVC pipe. His wife, Shirley Wang, is the founder and CEO of fiberglass door maker Plastpro Inc., and is listed as the director of the JMM Charitable Foundation.

Wang and his siblings had an estimated net worth of $5.4B in 2017, according to Forbes. Walter and Shirley Wang live in Los Angeles and have an extensive history of philanthropic donations, mainly through the Walter and Shirley Wang Foundation, largely to fund education, healthcare and Chinese-U.S. relations. 

Shirley Wang is an alumna of Columbia Business School, and the couple has two children at Columbia College. They donated $10M to fund an underground link between new business school buildings on Columbia's Manhattanville campus, named the Walter and Shirley Fan Wang Link.

It is unclear what the foundation's plans are for the property. It was represented by Compass in the transaction, according to the purchase sale agreement. The JMM Charitable Foundation had $43.6M in assets at the end of 2020, according to ProPublica's Nonprofit Explorer