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Archbishop decides what to do with controversial $2 million mansion

SMYRNA, Ga. -- The archbishop of Atlanta said Saturday that he will sell a $2.2 million mansion just three months after he moved in as he tried to appease angry parishioners.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory announced the decision following a closed-door meeting with members of several church councils at his headquarters north of Atlanta. He publicly apologized Monday for building the Tudor-style residence and will move out in early May.

"I have decided to sell the Habersham property and invest the proceeds from that sale into the needs of the Catholic community," Gregory told The Associated Press after the meeting. He declined to take questions.

A group of Catholics in Gregory's diocese had asked since January that he sell off the more than 6,000-square-foot home in keeping with the tone of austerity set by Pope Francis. Elected last year, Francis said he wants a church for the poor, drives in an economy car and lives in a guestroom instead of a Vatican palace. He has denounced the "idolatry of money" and warned against "insidious worldliness" within the church.

A safe room is seen in an original floor plan for the proposed new residence of Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Wednesday, April 2, 2014, in Smyrna, Ga. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta says he suspects the church will ultimately sell a $2.2 million mansion built for his use. Gregory said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that he accepts blame for not consulting enough with members of the church before building the expansive residence in one of Atlanta's toniest neighborhoods. David Goldman, AP

It was not immediately clear where Gregory will live next. He will not return to his old residence, which was sold for $1.9 million to Christ the King Cathedral. The cathedral plans to expand the archbishop's former home and house its priests there.

Gregory said this week that if the church sold the mansion, he would seek to live in a setting more modest than his current mansion or his previous home.

Laura Mullins, one of several Catholics who asked Gregory to sell the mansion, praised the archbishop for making a quick decision and ending the controversy. The mansion was made possible by a generous multimillion dollar gift to the archdiocese.

"He is the person we follow locally," she said. "He sets the mood. He sets the example for all of us to follow. If he is choosing to use a gift so personally, what does that tell the people sitting in the pews?"

Gregory thanked parishioners for raising the issue, and he acknowledged earlier this week the importance of Francis' example.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory David Goldman, AP
"He's called us to live more simply," Gregory said in an interview Wednesday, prior to announcing the decision to sell the residence. "He also has encouraged bishops to grow closer to their people, to listen to their people. And that, I take as a pretty serious admonition. I'm disappointed in myself ... because in my nine years, I do believe that I've grown very close to the people of the archdiocese. And I think this decision is an aberration rather than a pattern."

Even before the new pope's election, top-ranking Catholics were selling off luxurious homes, most built decades or a century ago by their predecessors seeking to demonstrate the growing clout of the Catholic church. The downsizing by archbishops in Boston and Philadelphia was also symbolically important during a period when church officials were closing parishes, schools and paying big settlements over clergy sex abuse.

A generous gift from a wealthy donor in Atlanta made the luxurious residence possible.

Undated photo of American author Margaret Mitchell, centre, who wrote "Gone with the Wind", talks with British actress Vivien Leigh, who played Scarlett O'Hara in the film adaption of the book, at a reception. American film actor Clark Gable, who played Rhett Butler in the film, listens to the conversation. AP

Joseph Mitchell, the nephew of the Margaret Mitchell, the author of the Civil War novel "Gone With the Wind," left an estate worth more than $15 million to the local church when he died in 2011. Mitchell asked in his will that the proceeds be used for "general religious and charitable purposes." He also requested that his parish, Christ the King Cathedral, get primary consideration.

The archdiocese gave $7.5 million to the cathedral, and cathedral officials bought Gregory's old home. By moving its priests into Gregory's former residence, the cathedral can free up space on its crowded campus.

After the sale, Gregory needed a new home.

He demolished Mitchell's old home and replaced it with an expansive mansion. It has an upper-level safe room, an eight-burner kitchen stove, an elevator, public and private offices and two dining rooms. Architects initially planned space for a wine room and wanted an antique chandelier in the foyer, though those plans were later dropped.