SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Real estate developer Arthur B. Birtcher and his wife have pledged $15 million to a foundation established to help the Pope carry out the Roman Catholic Church's religious and diplomatic missions around the world, church officials said Thursday.
Birtcher, a general partner in Laguna Niguel-based Birtcher, pledged the money to the Papal Foundation, a U.S. organization formed in 1988 and administered by the nation's highest ranking Catholic officials. The donation will be the largest ever to the foundation and raises the total of its gifts to $31 million.
"The Catholic Church is very, very much a part of my life and of my family's life," Birtcher said in an interview Thursday night. "I think that all of us who are close to the Holy Father feel that he has certainly been an inspiration for all people, Catholics and non-Catholics."
Thomas Benestad, executive director of the foundation, called the Birtchers' pledge "tremendously significant." The donation, he added, will be made over time, on a schedule yet to be worked out between the foundation and Birtcher.
The donation puts the Birtchers in the top rank of Orange County philanthropists, and church officials said it is one of the largest cash gifts ever pledged to the Catholic Church by an Orange County resident.
The Rev. Larry Baird, director of communications for the Diocese of Orange, said it "may well be the largest cash donation ever in the diocese." Tom Tracy, who has long been active in the diocese and was formerly one of its financial advisers, called the gift "completely unprecedented," adding, "It's raised a lot of eyebrows, I can tell you that."
Church officials across the country were overwhelmed.
"The gift of $15 million by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Birtcher reflects the depth of their faith, a devotion to our Holy Father and a love for the church," said John Cardinal Krol, the retired archbishop of Philadelphia and chairman of the foundation. The gift, he added, "reflects the wisdom of an investment in eternity, and I am most confident God will bless Mr. and Mrs. Birtcher for their outstanding commitment."
Arthur Birtcher, 51, is a general partner of Birtcher, a 50-year-old family firm that began as a developer of tract homes and has grown into one of the nation's largest commercial development companies with a portfolio estimated at about $3 billion in 1989. Arthur Birtcher and his brother Ron, the firm's other general partner, took over from their father, Fayette, in 1965.
The Birtchers' pledge comes at a time when the Catholic Church is coping with a huge debt burden, estimated at between $55 million and $60 million a year. Moreover, recent events have strained the Church's resources as it expands its diplomatic missions in the Third World and for the first time in decades extends into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
Arthur Birtcher said the donation was not timed specifically to events in Eastern Europe, where the Church is re-opening dioceses that have been closed since the Soviet Union occupied the area after World War II. But Birtcher added that he recognized the additional financial burden raised by the church's new commitments in that part of the world, as well as in its expanding missions in Africa.
"These are intended to be funds without strings attached that the Holy Father can use to offset the deficit in the operations of the church," Birtcher said. "This gift just happened to be made concurrently with the church's new missions. . . . That is by a greater design, perhaps."
Birtcher was elected a trustee of the Papal Foundation last July. He serves on its board with several other laymen and all the American cardinals, as well as several archbishops and bishops.
Led by Cardinal Krol, foundation leaders are holding meetings across the country, so far concentrating their fund raising on areas where trustees are located. On March 6, a small group of prominent Southern California Catholics gathered at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point to meet with leaders of the foundation, who explained the financial needs of the Holy See, the formal name of the church's administration.
Birtcher, who had already been meeting with Church officials to discuss his gift, hosted that meeting, according to several people who were present. Lay people, among them Carl N. Karcher, founder and head of the Carl's Jr. restaurant chain based in Anaheim, were asked to consider making donations of at least $1 million each.
The foundation, according to Benestad, hopes to build an endowment of at least $100 million and use the interest from that money to fund projects that help carry out the pastoral mission of the Holy See.
"The responsibility of the Church is to bring peace," Benestad said. "That's a big responsibility, and it carries a financial burden as well."
Hearing of the Birtchers' gift, several Southern California church leaders expressed their gratitude and delight.
"It is with great joy and enthusiasm that I acknowledge this most generous gift from Art and Gaye Birtcher," Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony said in a statement released by the foundation. "Their active involvement in the foundation signals to all people the seriousness of their devotion to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, and to the universal mission of the Catholic Church."