Crowded, rancorous hearing held regarding Mater Dolorosa Church, other properties
Story and photos by Terence Hegarty
HOLYOKE – As part of a March 20 public hearing that some participants described as rancorous at times, approximately 275 people gathered in the Holyoke Senior Center here to express their support for, or opposition to, the establishment of a Polish historic district in the city.
The proposed district would include Mater Dolorosa School, the adjacent Pope John Paul II Center and the now-closed Mater Dolorosa Church. While the proposed district includes 28 properties and involves more than a dozen property owners, nearly all of the remarks from the 30 people who spoke focused on the now-closed Mater Dolorosa Church on Maple Street.
The hearing was the fourth public hearing held on the matter, according to Olivia Mausel, co-chair of the Fairfield Avenue Local Historic District Commission, which formulated the plan. The Fairfield Avenue Commission is a separate entity from the Holyoke Historical Commission. The measure would still need to appear before the Holyoke City Council and receive a two-thirds majority vote in order to pass.
Proponents of the plan contend that including the church, which was built just after the turn of the 20th century by Polish immigrants, in the district will preserve their Polish heritage.
Opponents of the measure, many of whom identified themselves as parishioners of the nearby Our Lady of the Cross Parish, said that the designation will lead to undue financial burdens on the parish and Mater Dolorosa School, which is a parish school.
Our Lady of the Cross Parish, is the result of a merger between Mater Dolorosa Parish and Holy Cross Parish that took place in July of 2011. Parishioners now worship at Holy Cross Church on Sycamore Street.
Mausel opened the hearing shortly after 6 p.m. “There is no vote tonight,” she said to attendees. However, at the conclusion of the more than two-hour hearing, she asked for a show of hands from those in favor of the measure. As proponents began to raise their hands, chants of “No vote!” erupted from opponents.
Mausel then asked for a show of hands for those opposed to the proposal. Opponents refused to raise their hands, continuing their shouts of “No vote!”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, 15 proponents of the measure spoke, while 20 opponents were heard. Nearly all spoke from prepared remarks.
Chicopee resident, Attorney Victor Anop, chairman of the Friends of Mater Dolorosa, said that his group was asking that, as far as diocesan properties are concerned, just the church be included in the Polish heritage district, eliminating the inclusion of the school, the parish center and the convent.
He told the crowd that “there are a lot of positives to an historical district, including getting federal and state money for repairs.”
“The church is a holy place,” said Robert Allen, a Chicopee resident as he began his remarks. He went on to relate that churches often served as the religious and social hub of a community and decried demolitions from decades earlier. He said that “urban renewal” caused the displacement of the Polish people from the neighborhood.
“The building is good, and the people are good,” he said.
Cynthia Desrosiers, of Wilbraham, told the crowd that she was a former Holyoke resident and Mater Dolorosa parishioner. “All of us are children of God,” she said, “our church is divided.”
Desrosiers went on to say that money seemed to be the only matter in consideration. She then asked, “Why, was Mater Dolorosa chosen to be closed? Why not Holy Cross? Why not St. Jerome’s?”
Beginning comments for those opposed was Harold Bruneault, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Cross Parish and a member of the finance committee there.
“This is not easy for any of us,” he said. “But, the church has to be maintained by the people in the church.” He went on to note that the inclusion of the church in the historic district would not necessarily prevent the church from being sold.
However, properties in a historic district are inherently more difficult to sell since potential buyers know that they will be subject to the strict preservation regulations.
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.
Even though the Diocese of Springfield has never stated that it has any intention or desire to demolish Mater Dolorosa Church, many proponents of the measure apparently fear that that is a very real possibility. And they feel that a historic designation would protect the structure.
Jean Dietrich, chair of the finance committee at Our Lady of the Cross Parish, told the crowd that the parish has struggled since the merger. She said that last fall, the finance committee asked parishioners “to please increase their weekly donations if they could because we were going into debt.”
“Having an added burden of having to pay for architectural plans…and abiding by the rules of the historical commission for every outside repair for the church, the school, the hall, the convent, would put a huge strain on our ability to keep our church and school afloat,” Dietrich said.
“If you weaken our parish, you will weaken our school,” she told those gathered. “And that is what will happen to you if you pursue this proposal.” She noted that the closure of any church is difficult.
“God is in our hearts and He will follow us wherever we go,” she said to applause. “This division is sad…but we are fighting for the survival of our parish.”
Mausel told iobserve that her committee will take into account all of the comments from the hearings and then formulate a final report that would then be submitted to the Holyoke City Council.
She expected that the report would be presented to the council by the end of May.
For more on this story, tune into an upcoming edition of “Real to Reel,” the Diocese of Springfield’s television newsmagazine that airs Saturday evenings at 7 on WWLP-22NEWS.