Feb 12, 2014

Proponents of proposed Holyoke Polish Heritage Local Historic District dealt setback



By Terence Hegarty
(Iobserve file photos)

HOLYOKE – An attempt to establish a historic district in the city which would include Mater Dolorosa School, the adjacent Pope John Paul II Center and the now-closed Mater Dolorosa Church, was denied by the Holyoke Ordinance Committee Feb. 11 as part of a 6:30 p.m. meeting in the City Hall Council Chambers, here.

However, proponents said that this was just a temporary setback and that the effort will continue. Officials from the Diocese of Springfield and parishioners of Our Lady of the Cross Parish in the city, plan to mobilize opposition to the measure, insisting that it will adversely affect the diocese and/or the parish financially.

Members of the city council committee said that they were only recently made aware that what was listed as a “Final Report” by the Fairfield Avenue Local Historic District Commission (a separate entity from the Holyoke Historical Commission) was legally flawed.

Committee members told those gathered in the chambers that the plan submitted to the Ordinance Committee was not properly executed.

“It’s come to my attention that there were defects in the process,” said Rebecca Lisi, chair of the committee. Lisi said there were “several procedural defects” in the proposed ordinance that was before the committee. Chief among the lapses was that not all of the owners within the proposed district were notified of the proposal to create the historic district.

The Diocese of Springfield was not formally notified that the church and school properties were to become part of the Polish Heritage Local Historic District, according to Mark E. Dupont, spokesperson for the diocese.

“We have made it clear to Holyoke officials in a meeting last week that neither the diocese nor the parish community received any notice when this was brought before city council last year, an omission which is troubling to say the least” said Dupont.

Mater Dolorosa Church, on Maple Street, was closed in July of 2011 as part of a diocesan-wide pastoral planning process which saw several mergers and closures across western Massachusetts. The process was designed to strengthen the Catholic communities overall.

The existing Our Lady of the Cross Parish is the result of a merger of the former Holy Cross Parish and the former Mater Dolorosa Parish. Parishioners now worship in HolyCrossChurch.

David Bartley, Holyoke City Councilor and Ordinance Committee member, stated in the Ordinance Committee meeting that a Feb.3 meeting with city planning and development personnel hosted representatives of the diocese and of Our Lady of the Cross Parish.

Bartley said that, as a result of that meeting, “it came to light that the process by which an entity to be included in the district was notified was not followed.”

All indications are that this is just a temporary setback and that both opponents and proponents of the measure will continue to press their case. “Let’s make sure that the historic commission will step back and do it right,” Bartley said at the meeting.

Following brief discussion, a motion to withdraw the proposal was seconded and approved by the committee.

“We’re starting this process anew,” said Lisi. The committee then moved on to other business.

Exterior changes to properties that are subject to local historical commission regulations need approval of the historical commission before being carried out. Therefore, maintenance costs associated with such buildings are often dramatically increased.

The regulations do not prevent an owner from selling the property, but such properties are inherently more difficult to sell since potential buyers know that they will be subject to the strict preservation regulations as well.

Currently, the disposition of Mater Dolorosa Church is in the hands of the Vatican. Parishioners who protested the 2011 closing of the parish appealed to Rome. A January 2012 ruling from the Congregation for the Clergy ruled in favor of the diocese’s decisions to merge the parish and close the church. However, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura also said that Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell cannot demolish or sell the church to a secular buyer until it hears an appeal on the fate of the building.

The Vatican has issued decrees preventing several U.S. bishops from secularizing or demolishing churches. These include orders to maintain North American Martyrs Church in Lanesboro, and St. George and St. Patrick churches in Chicopee. Although these decisions led to some limited reuse in three of the churches, in fact the Vatican decision does not actually require any regular reuse.

“And putting a closed church in a historic district, will not-- contrary to what supporters claim – cause the church to be reopened… in fact, it will be clearly a detriment’” said Dupont.

Bartley, in an interview with iobserve following the vote to withdraw the measure, didn’t quite agree with Lisi’s characterization that this meant the effort was starting anew. “This puts us back to the midpoint,” he said, noting that much of the work that has been done can still be incorporated into another effort.

“In speaking to advocates (of the creation of the district), I think (their goal) is to preserve their heritage,” Bartley said. “MaterDolorosaChurch is a tangible symbol of Polish heritage, paid for, built by Polish immigrants, just like the other properties around there.”

At the time of the merger, the former Mater Dolorosa Parish had a debt to the diocese because it could not meet its annual operating expenses.

Dupont disputed the need to start over. “There are clear factual misstatements in the Fairfield Ave. report, a report created without input from the parish community or the diocese.” He went on to point out that a survey which also excluded input from the parish or diocese, resulted in only five out of 63 land owners expressing any interest in a historic district.”

“Despite such a failure of neighborhood support they seemed determined to force this issue,” said Dupont.

Conventual Franciscan Father Albert Scherer, administrator of Our Lady of the Cross Parish, is opposed to the creation of the historic district.

“We hope to mobilize our parishioners, our school parents and other people who are concerned and encourage them to voice their opposition to this,” Father Scherer told iobserve, “because we really feel that the bottom line is that it’s going to affect Our Lady of the Cross Parish financially.

“We really can’t afford to have our properties included in this district,” he said, noting that either upkeep of the buildings would be more expensive or that the difficulty associated with selling them would be greater.

Father Scherer said that the parish, along with the school, still does its best to promote the Polish heritage in the city.

“The Polish element is certainly a part of Our Lady of the Cross now,” he said. “And, if anything happens to Our Lady of the Cross Parish, that’s going to have a negative effect on those Polish parishioners.”

Victor Anop, an attorney and chairman of the Friends of Mater Dolorosa, said that the vote at the Feb. 11 meeting was “just a matter of procedural issues.”

“We want every 'i' dotted and every 't' crossed,” he told iobserve. “So, if the process has to go back a couple of steps, we don’t have any problem with that.”

Anop claims that Bishop McDonnell, as the property owner of the Holyoke properties, was notified of the Fairfield Avenue Local Historic District Commission’s efforts via certified letter.

However, he said that there was not confirmation that the letter was received by the bishop. “I don’t think they had all of the return receipts and things like that,” he said.

He also claims that the diocese was notified by virtue of Stephen Spellman’s presence at several meetings.

“Mr. Spellman appeared as an observer at all of these hearings,” Anop said. He said that the diocese’s claim that they were not properly notified “is a disingenuous argument.”

Anop further told iobserve that he believes, as part of the pastoral planning process, “It’s been a policy of the diocese to crush national churches. We call that ethnic cleansing.”

Dupont rebutted that comment, saying “In fact we maintain many parishes with Polish ties including Our Lady of the Cross; other ethnic parishes have been more impacted by changes in society which Mr. Anop and his followers fail to recognize. You only have to visit this neighborhood to see the changes.”

Dupont went on to stress that while the diocese did have knowledge of the historic commission’s meetings, it was not informed on city council proceedings, nor of the neighborhood survey or the creation of the report. He also questioned Anop’s role, saying he was not a city resident nor an owner of property in the district, and he was not a member of the Our Lady of the Cross parish. 

Bartley said that the Fairfield Avenue Local Historic District Commission will meet Feb. 12 and formally set a public hearing date, which he expects will be March 6. “They will send out proper notice to all the property owners,” he said.

Dupont said the parish and diocese will engage in this hearing and plan to press their case with the city when it is resurrected before the city council.