Church Closings Kindle Anxiety over Future Uses

By Christine McConville
Boston Globe [Boston MA]
August 5, 2004

Some have asked; others have demanded.

The manner may differ, but the request has been the same. In communities where Catholic churches are due to close, parish leaders and municipal officials are seeking a voice in future use of the property.

"It's the residents who paid for these churches," said Selectman Charles Lyons of Arlington, one of many local officials pushing for community input in the parish closings. "They shouldn't just go to the highest bidder. These properties have tremendous impact, and they are part of what has made us a community."

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said the archdiocese has already been working with the communities and plans to continue doing so.

But many local leaders say that because the archdiocese owns so many valuable and developable properties in a region that is starved for development opportunities, they need to ensure that when the parishes do get redeveloped, the community has a voice in the decision-making. They have floated ideas ranging from designating the churches as historic structures to rezoning the properties to acquiring them by eminent domain.

Although the archdiocese has said it won't discuss any parish's future use until the church has officially closed, Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said people are already wondering about the churches' future.

"This reconfiguration will have major ramifications for parishioners, the community, and the region," he said. It "isn't just a private event."

The Archdiocese of Boston plans to close at least 69 of its 357 parishes by the end of the year. There may be a few more; church closings in Lowell and Lawrence are expected to be announced later this summer.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has said there are several reasons for closing the churches: more and more Catholics are moving to the suburbs from the city, where there are lots of aging churches that need costly repairs; fewer worshipers donated to the church after reports surfaced that some priests had sexually abused children; and there aren't enough priests to man all the churches.

In May, the archdiocese announced plans to close 67 parishes. Of those, five may remain open as satellite churches. In June, the archdiocese announced four church closings in Lowell. At least two more Lowell churches and one or more in Lawrence are expected to be closed soon.

Some of the churches slated for closing are in dense and bustling urban areas, rife with commercial potential. Some city parishes provide the only green and open space for blocks; some suburban parishes in affluent neighborhoods have tremendous resale value.

Coyne said the archdiocese has been discussing its plans with community leaders. "We've started a conversation with the communities, and we'd like to keep it open," Coyne said. "We will work with the cities and towns, but a lot of those [redevelopment] decisions will be up to the developers. . . . We are not in the development business."

Still, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council is offering its expertise to communities in its jurisdiction that have pending parish closings. The agency, a regional economic-development organization representing 101 communities in Greater Boston, will assess community needs, do traffic studies, and calculate the impact that proposed reuses would have on a community's water and sewer service, Draisen said in a letter to area selectmen.

"These churches represent enormous [potential], and it is extremely important to make sure that the land is developed with public input," he said in a telephone interview last week.

Community leaders apparently agree.

In Lowell, Mayor Armand Mercier persuaded the City Council to support a plan that would extend the boundaries of the city's historic mill district to include the former Saint Jean Baptiste Church, the mother church of the French-speaking Catholics who emigrated from Canada for Lowell's mill jobs in the 1800s. Mercier wants to make sure the cathedral-like stone church, which is now called Nuestra Senora del Carmen Church, isn't converted into condominiums or demolished in the name of urban renewal.

To him, the church tells a critical chapter in this mill town's history.

"If you are going to tell the story of the Industrial Revolution, you have to have the mills, but when you talk about the people who worked in the mills, you have to see this church," he said in hushed tones last month, as he walked past the ornate wooden pews and beneath the elaborate stained-glass windows. "This church is a testament to all the Franco-Americans that settled this city and built this magnificent church with their nickels and dimes."

In Arlington, selectmen asked the town's lawyer, John Maher, to inform the archdiocese that the town is interested in acquiring the properties that are part of St. Jerome and St. James parishes. In his letter, Maher told the archdiocese the selectmen are interested in buying the properties "or taking by eminent domain."

Lyons said the properties ought to be used for affordable housing in a town that has become an increasingly expensive place to live, for community meeting or recreational space or even to expand a school for autistic children.

Last week, Maher said the archdiocese "said they'd be glad to meet with us.

Belmont town administrator Melvin Kleckner and senior planner Timothy Higgins already had one of those sit-down meetings with archdiocese officials. Higgins said they were among about 50 people who attended a meeting in June, and he noticed many town administrators and planners in the crowd.

For people in Belmont, the big question was what will happen to the town's senior center, which is now housed in Our Lady of Mercy's parish hall, when the parish closes. Kleckner said he was relieved to hear that the archdiocese plans to honor its leases, and may sell off parts of parishes individually, rather than as a single unit.

Other communities are bracing for a fight.

In Medford, parishioners at Sacred Heart parish, which closed in late July, are questioning the archdiocese's right to sell the property.

City Councilor and former parishioner Robert Penta said the Medford Hillside property, next to Tufts University's sprawling campus, was a city-owned park for women and children. In 1939, the city sold it to the archdiocese for $5,000, after the Legislature approved the land transfer. The controversial land transfer was made when the city's burgeoning Irish- and Italian-American population was clamoring for a Catholic church.

Penta wants to have the property rezoned to a commercial, tax-paying status, so it can start generating income for the city. "It's lost its status as a church," Penta said. "All it is, is a piece of property."

Parishioners at Sacred Heart Church in Lexington are researching the parish deed, too, said parishioner Frank Bellini, but mostly, he said, the parish's energy is going into fighting the closing.

Before the closing was announced, the parish had 450 students in religious education classes. The parish had more than twice as many baptisms a year than the parish they are being folded into, parishioners say. Bellini said many parishioners feel the closing is unfair, and they are planning steps to fight it, all the way to the Vatican if necessary.

Although people are raising good questions about the church's future, he said, people in his parish aren't thinking along those lines yet.

"We are doing all we can to keep it open," he said.


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