How $42K-a-year priest built mansion worth millions

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Williamston — The Rev. Jon Wehrle, who is proud of his prowess as a builder, constructed his masterpiece on the rural outskirts of this central Michigan town.

The two-story, stone-façade house has eight bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, a library, wine cellar, indoor swimming pool and wood-paneled elevator. The 11,300-square-foot home boasts granite counter tops, limestone fireplaces, walnut hardwood floors, crystal chandeliers and stained-glass windows.

Wehrle, 67, who was pastor of St. Martha Church in Okemos, lived in the mansion, which a contractor said was worth $3 million to $4 million.

How could a Catholic priest who earned $42,000 a year afford such opulence?

Police officials argue the clergyman had stolen from the Sunday collection plate for at least 19 years. An audit found $5 million missing from church coffers, they said.

Wehrle was charged with six counts of embezzlement last year and forced to resign. His trial is scheduled for April 9 in Ingham County Circuit Court.

“It’s shocking, the whole thing,” said church member Reba Dean. “We’re all kind of upset about it.”

Wehrle declined comment. His attorneys didn’t respond to emails or phone calls.

The Catholic Diocese of Lansing may have missed several chances to stop the alleged pilfering, according to interviews, depositions, police reports, court records and trial testimony reviewed by The Detroit News.

During construction of the home in 2007, Wehrle was embroiled in a contentious lawsuit over his failure to pay one of the building contractors. The contractor, Russ Martin, told The News he had contacted the diocese back then and said Wehrle was using church money to pay for the construction.

During a 2007 deposition in the lawsuit, Wehrle said he used church checks to pay for the home. He said he switched money from his personal bank account to the church account and paid contractors from the church account, according to the deposition. He said he did so for “convenience” but didn’t elaborate.

Also, a church secretary recently told police she had been aware of Wehrle using church money for personal expenses, but it wasn’t clear whether she ever told anyone, according to investigative reports by the Michigan State Police.

“The home wasn’t a secret,” Martin said. “It was too big to be a secret. A priest building a $3 million-$4 million home is fishy.”

Diocese officials declined to discuss the matter.

As for the cleric, Wehrle, who goes by Father Jon, could be inscrutable, acquaintances said. He was a self-described curmudgeon who seemed to prefer his own company.

Between his gruff demeanor and bulky 6-foot-5 frame, he intimidated some church members, they said.

But, if you got to know him, he was quite likable, said friends. The bear of a man became a teddy bear. He was smart, kind, funny.

“He’s a decent wonderful man who built a beautiful parish for us,” said church member Patty McPhee.

Wehrle was a foster parent who adopted three boys in their early teens in 1986, 1993 and 1998, according to court records.

A drive for construction

One of the first things anyone who got close to Wehrle learned was his passion for building, friends said. He inherited it from his late dad, whom he revered.

Harold Wehrle was an electrical contractor in Adrian who was always looking for vacant lots where he could build a house, Jon Wehrle said in the 2007 deposition.

No sooner would the family move into a home than Harold would be finishing the next one, Jon said. The Wehrles moved 12 times in 15 years.

“The joke was, when the windows needed to be washed, it was time to move,” Jon said in the deposition.

As a child, he accompanied his father to work sites, drilling holes and pulling wire as they set up the house’s electrical system. an adult, he repeated his dad’s pattern of serial home building, he said in the deposition. It continued after he was ordained as a priest in 1978 and worked in three parishes in Hudson, Burton and Jackson.

By the time he arrived at St. Martha in 1988, he had built and lived in six homes.

Jon Wehrle said he would lie awake at night imagining the design of the next house. He sketched his ideas, gave them to an architect, bought a lot, hired subcontractors and oversaw their work, visiting the work site every day.

Wehrle knew his stuff, acquaintances said.

Retiree Ted Beekman, one of the founding members of St. Martha, said he was playing golf when he overheard several builders discuss the construction of St. Martha. Wehrle had apparently caught one of the contractors using substandard wiring and forced him to reinstall it.

“They said, don’t go to St. Martha and try to pull something over the priest. He knew what he was doing,” said Beekman.

Okemos building supervisor

Wehrle believed it was his acumen as a builder that got him tabbed to start a new church in Okemos, he said in the 2007 deposition. When he was pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Hudson, he supervised the renovation of its church.

In Okemos, he was involved in every phase of building the new church, from design through construction. It was built on the site of a former drive-in porn theater.

While the church was being built, the diocese allowed Wehrle to use parish money to pay the mortgage of a home he was building, the diocese told police. Once the church was done, he would sell the home and move into the rectory.

Werhle built a 6,000-square-foot home in Okemos, according to property records. He told the local paper he had built such a large house to prove to himself that he could. He said he had taken the best parts of his six earlier homes and combined them in this one.

“I don’t have to live in a house of this stature,” he said in the 1989 Lansing State Journal article.

He sold the home for $370,000 in 1990, according to property records. He sent the diocese a check for $25,000, saying it was reimbursement to the parish, according to a copy of the 1990 letter in diocese files, which was described in a state police report.

Then Bishop Ken Povish wrote back, asking Wehrle to describe all parish spending on the home to show how he had determined it was $25,000. The mortgage had been $190,000.

No other letters were in the diocese file, according to the police report.

Rural rectories

Wehrle never moved into the rectory.

Instead, after selling the 6,000-square-foot home, he bought a 3,600-square-foot home on 25 acres in Williamston, according to property records.

He said he had an agreement with Povish to continue living in private homes at church expense, but three bishops told police they weren’t aware of such a deal, according to the police report. Povish died in 2003.

One of the bishops, the Rev. James Murray, who was Povish’s chief of staff, flatly denied such an agreement existed. He said Wehrle was supposed to stop using church money after selling his Okemos home in 1990.

“I can say with certainty that neither I nor Bishop Povish knew of, or approved, payments from St. Martha’s Parish,” Murray said in an affidavit.

Wehrle was returning from Mass in 2000 when he spied a sale sign on an old farm house across the street from his Williamston home.

He pulled into the driveway and was instantly smitten, he said in the 2007 deposition. The 10-acre lot had a large pond that made it an ideal place to build a home.

And not just any home. Wehrle, who plays the organ, said he wanted to build a house big enough to hold three theater pipe organs he had bought from around the country. The living room had to be large enough to allow the sound from 32 sets of pipes to unfurl, he said.

He said the home needed just two bedrooms, but he built eight “to attain balance and scale,” according to his deposition.

Rev. Jonathan Wehrle, the founding pastor of St. Martha's Church in Okemos, is accused of stealing $5 million from the church.

Controlling church coffers

Wehrle had sole access to St. Martha’s finances, staffers told police. He was the only person allowed to open the mail, pay bills and handle payroll.

Members donated $1 million a year, based on weekly contributions described in church bulletins.

Christine Korpela, church secretary for 22 years, told police last year she wasn’t surprised they were looking into church finances.

She described Wehrle as a controlling micromanager who did everything by himself. Korpela said she knew he had used church checks to pay for personal expenses.

“Korpela stated there are many red flags including the fact Father Jon does everything alone,” said the police report.

Korpela declined to talk to The News.

Diocese officials told police they had little oversight over parish finances. The church was required to file a financial report every year, but the figures weren’t independently verified.

Audits were done whenever there was a change of leadership at a parish, but Wehrle was the only pastor at St. Martha during its first 29 years, according to the police report.

In fact, it was a tightening of financial controls that led to the discovery of the questionable spending at St. Martha.

When George Landolt became chief financial officer of the diocese in 2012, one the first things he did was hire an auditor to review spending by all of its parishes, he told police.

The auditor, Plante Moran, visited St. Martha the next year and recommended it hire a bookkeeper, spread financial duties among several people and use a software program that allowed the diocese to overview the spending.

But Wehrle balked at the changes over the next few years, Landolt said.

Relations between Wehrle and Landolt became so contentious Wehrle told Bishop Earl Boyea in 2015 he would deal only with Tom Pastula, a former chief financial officer who was still with the diocese.

But even with Pastula, Wehrle refused to allow anyone to see parish financial records or its general ledger, Landolt told police. At that point the diocese decided to do a full audit of St. Martha’s books.

What the audit found

The audit discovered Wehrle had written checks from St. Martha to pay for furnishings, work and materials at his home and his mother’s former home near Jackson. He also had written checks to himself and three family members, who weren’t identified.

In the number column of invoices, Wehrle attributed the spending to the rectory, parking lot, maintenance-parish and fringe benefits-parish, according to the police report.

His mansion seemed to be in a perpetual state of improvement, police said. In 2016 alone, $140,500 was spent on the home.

“It’s big and it’s beautiful,” said neighbor Marian Jurkowski. “We could never figure how a priest could afford it.”

An incomplete audit of 70 boxes of financial records seized from the church showed $4 million in expenditures stretching back to 1998, prosecutors said. Another $1 million is unaccounted for, they said.

Most of the money went for a home whose opulence begins at the entrance to the property, police said. A gate is bordered by two 15-foot stone pillars with statues of lions on them.

A stroll along the 10-acre property takes one past a four-tier fountain, three barns, a pond ringed by a stone balustrade and a Victorian-style gazebo with a cupola in a garden filled with statues, according to photos taken by police.

“(It’s) such a massive estate on a massive piece of land with massive barns and outbuildings,” said Andrew Stevens, assistant Ingham County prosecutor.

Inside the mansion, everything seems to be in duplicate: double stove, double fridge, double shower heads, two pianos, a two-floor library.

The house also has bidets, canopy beds, leather couches, hot tubs, 10 fireplaces, 12 flat-screen TVs and a doorway with 20 panels of stained glass, the photos show.

But not all the trimmings are secular. The throw pillows on one couch show the face of Jesus.

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell