St Francis Upper

St. Francis Upper is at capacity for students, which is why Billings Catholic Schools is looking to construct a new building to house kindergarten through eight grade.

Gazette file photo

Eleven people who claim interest in the deed of the former St. Francis Upper school building are challenging Billings Catholic Schools' effort to take over the property.

They filed a counterclaim on Oct. 23 in Yellowstone County District Court, saying that a 100-year-old deed to the building grants them stakes in its future. 

The filers are Jeanne Mangan, Joan Mangan Smith, Edmund Rueter, Joseph P. Rueter, Jennifer A. Sanczel, Michelle T. Sanczel, Sean E. Sanczel, Stephen P. Sanczel, Andrew J. Smith, Ashley Clarke and Rebecca Smith.

Court documents say they don't live in Montana, and it's unclear what they hope to do with their stake in the building. The Billings attorneys representing the group didn't respond to a phone inquiry on Monday.

The documents request that a judge declare them "interested or potentially interested parties under the terms of the deed at issue."

This stems from a legal filing made in August by the Catholic Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, on behalf of Billings Catholic Schools. The private school system wants to sell the St. Francis Upper school building in downtown Billings now that it's vacant.

All those students now attend St. Francis Catholic School, which was built for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and opened this year on Colton Avenue.

The schools sought a judge's ruling to clarify any ambiguity in the century-old deed to St. Francis Upper. A wealthy Billings heiress, Kate Fratt, donated the property to the diocese in 1916.

The deed stipulated that the property be used as a parochial school. If not, interest in the property would be gained by relatives named by Fratt in the deed and, by extension, their descendants.

An attorney for the diocese sent notices to 434 identified heirs and placed legal ads in 16 newspapers across the country. If a judge grants the diocese sole interest in the property, school administrators plan to sell it and put the money toward paying off the new school.

Janyce Haider, Billings Catholic Schools Foundation president, described the filing as procedural and said they will wait to see if the heirs make more requests for their potential stakes.

“Just wait to see if they decide to come through," Haider said. "Then you have to calculate their share.”

The diocese has not filed a response to the heirs' claim of interest. A hearing date hasn't been set in the case.

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General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.