Bishop Hopes Closings Reinvigorate Parishes

By Tammy Daniels

August 12, 2008

NORTH ADAMS Diocesan officials are hoping for a renewed sense of purpose and vitality in local parishes after the latest round of church closings were announced this weekend.

"I really want to be building up a church, not a church building," said Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, adding it was important to build "critical mass at Mass."

McDonnell, speaking at a press conference in Springfield, said the consolidation will help in bringing congregants together, sparking what he hopes will be "a new dynamic, a new sense of possibility ... because we are going to be focusing on people."

St. Francis' Church, North Adams' oldest Catholic Parish, is scheduled for closure.

Both Adams and North Adams each have three remaining churches that will merge into one parish, and into one building, for each community St. Anthony of Padua in North Adams and Notre Dame des Sept Dolours in Adams. The consolidation reflects the drop in attendance and the difficulty in finding priests both communities have had one priest for three churches for several years now.

Those attending Mass over the weekend were read a letter from McDonnell that laid out plans for closing and reorganizing parishes within their regions. The changes in four of the diocese's 10 regions are to go into effect Jan. 1, 2009.

Among those facing closure are St. Francis of Assisi and and Our Lady of Mercy in North Adams; St. Stanislaus Kostka and St. Thomas in Adams and the small North American Martyrs in Lanesborough. Also affected are parishes in Housatonic (All Saint's and Corpus Christi will merge into one building as Mother Teresa of Calcutta), St. Joseph's in Stockbridge may become a mission to St. Mary's in Lee, and Our Lady of the Valley in Sheffield could lose its assigned priest.

St. Stanislaus Kostka School in Adams will remain open.

Msgr. John J. Bonzagni, director of pastoral planning, said the diocese will maintain the closed buildings until they can be sold. The assets will remain with the parishes to help them meet their needs. The bishop said about 40 percent of the parishes are operating in the red.

The parish consolidation has been going on for some years as the diocese has been forced to deal with dwindling congregations and rising costs. Notre Dame Parish in North Adams was closed and the buildings sold within the last few years. Williamstown's Parish of Sts. Patrick's and Raphael's is selling St. Raphael's Church on Cole Avenue and six of Pittsfield's 10 churches will close.

A communicant of more than 30 years at St. Francis said there was only silence on Sunday as parishioners were told that the historic church would close for good by the end of the year.

McDonnell said a number of factors were taken into account in deciding which churches would close and which would stay open. Some of the recommendations came from the Mullin Report, a survey of the diocese performed by the University of Massachusetts' Center for Economic Development and released in early 2007. However, the bishop stressed that the overriding criteria were ecclesial, pastoral and ethereal.

The final recommendations were made by the Pastoral Planning Committee after discussions with clergy and parish representatives. This announcement pertained to four of the dioceses' 10 regions. The diocese is only halfway "through a very difficult process," said spokesman Mark E. DuPont.

The closures in North County will erase in large part the ethnic heritage that had imbued these parishes, which were as often referred to as the Polish church or the Italian church, for example, as by their proper names. That heritage was kept in mind, said McDonnell, when determining the names of the new parishes.

Church officials hope to salve sting of losing the 103-year-old St. Stanislaus Kostka Church by naming the new parish for Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope immortalized in bronze outside St. Stan's doors. St. Anthony's will be renamed for St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a noble of the Middle Ages who was a follower and supporter of the Franciscan order. St. Anthony, of course, was a protege of St. Francis.

But St. Francis' Parish is the city's oldest, established in 1863, and the church's spire rises high above the entrance to the city along Route 2. McDonnell acknowledged its importance as a landmark but said it came down to which church was more economically feasible. St. Francis requires structural and other work in excess of $1 million while St. Anthony's, although smaller, was recently refurbished.

St. Anthony's also is situated on level ground (St. Francis' is on a hill) and includes the St. Anthony Parish Center with its gymnasium and classrooms used by a number of civic and community groups.

McDonnell called on church members to remember that their ancestors had come from far away to build communities and worship together, that they were pilgrims and pioneers. The buildings may be lost but the memories aren't, he said.

"We need to build new communities to take their place," said McDonnell.


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