Mar 7, 2014

Most closed churches in the Springfield Diocese have found new life



(Iobserve file photos)

Staff report

SPRINGFIELD -- During the last 30 years, the Diocese of Springfield has had considerable success in finding appropriate uses for the 53 churches it has closed in parish consolidations or after the construction of newer facilities.

Including the original St. Cecilia Church in Wilbraham, 23 closed church buildings are still standing, and in active use. Nine are on the real estate market, while the future of 10 others remains uncertain, either because their closures as Catholic places of worship are under canonical appeal, or the parishes that own them have not yet reached a decision on their fate.

Only 10 former churches have been demolished, while only one other faces probable demolition in the near future.

“Our first goal is to find a suitable reuse whenever possible,” said Msgr. John Bonzagni, chairman of the diocese’s Real Estate Advisory Committee.

Repeating a phenomenon of the 19th century, when declining Protestant congregations sold unneeded churches to immigrant Catholics establishing parishes, eight former Catholic churches now are worship sites for other religious groups.

Five churches -- St. Anthony of Padua and St. Therese of the Child Jesus in Agawam, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Mary of the Assumption in Chicopee, and St. Louis-de-France in West Springfield -- are now being used by growing Evangelical congregations of immigrants from Latin America and the former Soviet Union.

Three others are now the home to English-speaking Protestant congregations. St. Mary Church in Ludlow is now to the home of the Church of the Nazarene, St. John Mission in Chester is a Baptist church, while the former St. Mary Church in Thorndike now houses an Episcopal parish.

The former St. Matthew Church in Indian Orchard in now a mosque for Turkish-speaking Muslims.

The disposition of the religious ornamentation in and on those churches varied, depending on the building and the nature of its new owner, explained Father Bill Pomerleau, the diocesan director of patrimony.

“Our canonical obligation is to ensure that nothing that seems to have a sacred character is used in an inappropriate setting. Obviously, we wouldn’t want an old tabernacle converted into a beer cooler for a restaurant,” Father Pomerleau said.

Only one tabernacle from an unused Catholic church, that of the Thorndike church, went to a new owner.

“The Episcopal Church believes in the Real Presence, and the parish there reserves the Blessed Sacrament just like we do,” said Father Pomerleau.

Similarly, altars were removed from all the other churches. “Some Protestants use altars for Lord’s Supper ceremonies, but it’s not the same thing as celebrating the Eucharist. We should keep our altars in Catholic use, or in some cases, dismantle them,” Father Pomerleau said.

Four former Catholic churches in western Massachusetts -- St. Matthew in Becket, Sacred Heart in Greenfield, St. John in Millers Falls, and St. James in South Deerfield -- are now used as private residences. The former St. Raphael Church in Williamstown has been converted into apartments.

Other churches have become centers for social service agencies, performance spaces or artistic-oriented businesses.

The former St. Francis of Assisi Mission in South Lee is the headquarters for a nonprofit African mission support group, while the former All Souls Mission in Pittsfield is now a daycare center. The Brien Center, a facility offering mental health and substance abuse services affiliated with Berkshire Medical Center, occupies the former Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, also in Pittsfield.

The former Blessed Sacrament Church in Springfield now houses the North End Youth Center. The former St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Springfield was renamed Blessed Sacrament when the latter parish moved into its building in 1998. The former St. Casimir Church in Westfield is now used by the Westfield Public Schools.

Notre Dame Church in Pittsfield now houses a business producing tapestries, while St. Monica Mission in Wales is now a fabric shop.

The former Notre Dame Church in North Adams (pictured at right), which closed in 2006, was sold to the city of North Adams. It now houses offices for the nearby Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. 

Ed Shibley, an agent for Colebrook Realty, the company that markets diocesan property, confirmed that there are active discussions with potential buyers for other churches. But he declined to identify them, citing the need for confidentiality during real estate negotiations. He did say that, in general, smaller church buildings are easier to market than larger buildings. Closed churches with adequate parking, good locations and cooperative municipal officials are easier to transfer to new owners, he added.

Msgr. Bonzagni noted that Our Lady of Hope and Holy Family churches in Springfield have been difficult to market. “We approached Springfield College about Holy Family, but they weren’t interested. A number of African-American congregations have looked at the building, but none of them are large enough to maintain it.

“It’s not that we want too high a purchase price. Most who look at it turn away when they realize just how expensive it would be to repair and maintain,” Msgr. Bonzagni told iobserve.

Diocesan officials believe that, in some cases, the placement of a church in a historical district either has no affect on its long-term fate, or can actually work against its preservation.

“We tried to interest the city in acquiring Our Lady of Hope for use as a cultural or arts venue,” Msgr. Bonzagni noted, adding that there have been no offers for the church and its attached rectory. “We’re not actively marketing it right now, but we’d listen to proposals,” he said.

The relatively few churches have been demolished in the diocese in the last 40 years, for varying reasons.

Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Holyoke closed in 1974 when its parish merged with the nearby Immaculate Conception Church. The diocese demolished the church to make way for Rosary Towers, a 100-unit apartment complex for the elderly and disabled persons run by the Holyoke Housing Authority.

Precious Blood Church, also in Holyoke, which was the worship site for thousands of Franco-American Catholics at the turn of the 20th century, had 43 active parishioners when it closed in 1978. At the request of neighborhood activists and city officials, Springfield Bishop Joseph F. Maguire delayed the demolition of its church for more than a year while neighborhood activists and city officials unsuccessfully sought a party to buy the church or receive it as a gift from the diocese.

The original Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Chicopee and Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church in Westfield were taken down to make way for road projects. In both cases, parishioners lobbied state officials for the demolitions, since it allowed their parishes to build larger, more modern churches.

Parishioners similarly lobbied Holyoke city officials to allow the demolition of Immaculate Conception Church, which was closed in 2005 when diocesan officials found serious structural problems with the building. Although a few older Franco-American parishioners opposed its 2006  demolition, a much larger group of younger parishioners successfully lobbied for the construction of a new, smaller parish church on the same site.

Funds for the new church came largely from an insurance settlement given to the diocese after a fire destroyed Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in 2001. The settlement also enabled the diocese to relocate Holyoke Catholic High School to the former Assumption School in Chicopee.

St. Bernadette in Holland, a small mission church of St. Christopher Parish in Brimfield, was suppressed in 2004. Because of structural concerns, there was no market for its re-use, so it was demolished, according to Shibley’s report.

Location was a key factor in the demolition of two churches. St. Joseph Church and School in Springfield’s South End neighborhood was sold to the Colvest Group, which demolished the building in 2009 to erect two office buildings, the first private sector construction in central Springfield in 40 years.

In analyzing plans for the new buildings, the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department told the Springfield City Council, “Although the staff is disheartened to lose one of Springfield’s historic structures, the staff understands the economics of the re-use of the existing building. Further, the staff welcomes the introduction of a new business to the city, and after reaching consensus with the developer to accommodate improvements to the plan, is pleased with the overall design."

Members of the council, who unanimously voted for the redevelopment plan, later alluded to the razing of St. Joseph’s as an avoidable event that damaged the Union Street neighborhood’s architectural heritage as they voted to designate Our Lady of Hope as a historical district.

Some of the same councilors have since become enthusiastic backers of plans by MGM to build a casino on the site of the parish’s rectory and parking lot, and on the sites of a soon-to-be demolished vacant public school, historic armory, and century-old commercial buildings. They voted to specifically exempt buildings in the casino district from a newly-enacted demolition delay ordinance that will apply to churches and other 100-year-old buildings in the city.

Proceeds from the sale of the St. Joseph properties went to St. Michael’s Cathedral Parish, which needed approximately $1 million in structural repairs to its foundation.

St. Ann Church in West Springfield, a mission church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, became a part of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish during the 2009 round of pastoral planning. A market analysis of its building and site commissioned by the diocese concluded that the building was unlikely to attract buyers due to traffic flow and lack of parking along the busy Memorial Avenue location.

Colvest bought the St. Ann property and leveled its church and rectory, but so far has not found a tenant for the commercially-zoned site.  

“The report said that even the land would be difficult to redevelop, and that’s proven to be the case,” said Msgr. Bonzagni.

A similar situation exists in North Adams, where a six-year effort by the diocese, city officials, a non-profit organization and commercial developers has so far failed to prevent the likely demolition of St. Francis of Assisi. (See related story on iobserve.)

St. Teresa Church in Pittsfield, which failed to attract buyers who would retain the building, was razed to make way for housing for the elderly and handicapped.

“It was a shame about St. Teresa, but I think we found the most socially useful use for the building,” said Msgr. Bonzagni.

Four years after the latest round of parish consolidations, the futures of St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Northampton, Our Lady of Hope in Springfield and St. George in Chicopee are still uncertain. The conversion of these churches into secular use has been challenged by former parishioners in petitions sent to Rome, preventing their reuse until their cases are heard by a Vatican court.

Four church buildings in Chicopee that now belong to a merged Holy Name Parish -- Holy Name, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. George and St. Patrick (pictured at left) -- will likely be reduced to a smaller number of worship sites in the relatively near future. All of the buildings need substantial capital improvement or repairs, and no one parish property has all of the facilities required in a modern parish, making the decision of what to do very difficult, Msgr. Bonzagni explained.

Two parishes, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Housatonic, which included Corpus Christi Church, and Our Lady of the Valley in Easthampton, which included Sacred Heart and Notre Dame churches, have opted to temporarily keep their unused worship spaces vacant.

“They may want to wait awhile before doing anything, or they are not yet psychologically ready for a change,” said Msgr. Bonzagni.