Mater Dolorosa Church in Holyoke Marks Six-month Anniversary of Its 24-hour Vigil

By Jeanette DeForge
The Republican
January 2, 2012

Life-long Holyoke resident, Frank Chmura, far right, and scores of other Polish Catholic faithful of the the Mater Dolorosa Church say prayers outside the church. The group has been holding a 24-hour vigil for six-months hoping to keep the church open after the Springifield Diocese closed the church.

The New Year brought a celebration of a different kind at the Mater Dolorosa Church where more than 100 people gathered to recognize the six-month anniversary of a round-the-clock vigil held to save the church.

Friends of Mater Dolorosa – formed shortly after the last Mass was said at the Maple Street church in June – gathered inside the church to say prayers and sing in Polish and English. They shared food and hugged.

Throughout the six months of arranging a schedule to make sure at least two people are in the church at all times, huddling in blankets to stay warm in the heatless building and battling with Springfield Roman Catholic Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell, the group has grown stronger and remains determined, said Shirley Anop, of Chicopee, a long-time member.

As a lector, Anop chooses readings and songs for the weekly Friday prayer vigils that typically attract 100 or more people. On Dec. 23, that number ballooned to about 300, she said.

“These are the faithful believers and we have become more so,” Anop said. “Everything we do is good and we are doing God’s work. I can’t understand why we are being taken to court.”

The Springfield Diocese disagrees. Officials feel the Friends are standing in the way of efforts to make all the parishes in Western Massachusetts financially sound, and may be creating a serious danger by preventing church officials from removing the church steeple that two engineering reports say is in poor shape and could collapse.

“While we understand the emotions that come from having to leave a beloved church, the factors involved in making this difficult decision were overwhelming, not arrived at in haste, but over a number of years. To have ignored this reality would have been a failure to act in the best interests of future Catholic generations,” said Mark E. Dupont, diocese spokesman.

Citing declining enrollment and financial problems, the Catholic Diocese reduced the number of parishes in Holyoke.

Joe Borucki, of South Hadley, holds his photograph of the scores of Polish Catholic faithful of the the Mater Dolorosa Church having a prayer service inside the closed church.

The decision was to join Holy Cross and Mater Dolorosa. The new parish, named

Our Lady of the Cross, would be ministered to by the Franciscan order and Rev. Alex B. Cymerman from the Mater Dolorosa and the Mater Dolorosa School would continue. The Holy Cross Church became the parish’s new home.

But when the last Mass was held June 30, Mater Dolorosa members refused to leave.

Dupont said the Diocese has been trying to show compassion, but the battle has frequently turned bitter.

On the last Mass, one member shouted “you lie” to McDonnell and the diocese has accused protesters of failing to secure the church properly. Protesters frequently complain the diocese has not shared financial records, an accusation Dupont has repeatedly denied.

In an unusual move, the diocese has filed a court order to try to remove the protesters, saying they are trespassing. It has not done the same at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Adams, where protesters started the third year of their non-stop vigil on Dec. 26.

The difference is the condition of the steeple. It cannot be removed with people inside, Dupont said.

Protesters, however, hired their own engineer who contradicted the church’s two reports and said the steeple is safe.

A hearing on a summary judgment is scheduled for Wednesday in Hampden Superior Court. Earlier, a judge denied the Diocese’s request for an emergency injunction to order protesters to leave.

Protesters were delivered a blow this fall when the Vatican rejected their appeal of McDonnell’s decision to close the church. They have asked the Congregation of the Clergy to reconsider the decision based on new information.

“As we have consistently asked since July 1, we would take this opportunity to again ask those occupying the church to end their unauthorized and very divisive action,” Dupont said.

Dorothy Skivel, of South Hadley, chose not to join the protesters, even though she had been a member of Mater Dolorosa for 75 years.

“Having been a member of the parish council, I knew we were struggling. We were treading water and you can only tread water for so long before you drown,” she said.

Skivel said she never felt unwelcome and knew some of the Holy Cross members through an inter-parish project called Alpha Program. She said it will take time to build the new parish, but the work is worth it.

“I can find God anywhere,” she said.

The parish was deeply in debt, owing an estimated $734,000. Some of the protesters are questioning that figure and, in a countersuit, are asking for a complete accounting of the approximately $425,000 donated to improve the church, said Victor Anop, a Mater Dolorosa member from Chicopee who is also serving as its lawyer with fellow member Peter Stasz.

Stasz is a relatively newcomer to Mater Dolorosa, having joined after St. Joseph Church in Springfield closed in 2005. He said he believes Mater Dolorosa is a vibrant parish and worth fighting for, even if it means spending an occasional night sleeping in the church.

“The vote to close the church was 4-3. I was the deciding vote. We had so few members,” he said of St. Joseph Church.

Stasz said he visited other churches before Mater Dolorosa. He loved that many families were members.

As a father of two children who are 13 and 11, Nyles Courchesne, of Holyoke said he and his wife strongly believe in a Catholic education for their son and daughter.

“We weren’t willing to join them. We wanted to move on with the parish,” he said, adding he wishes others did too. “It is not good for the parish.

Courchesne said he has compassion for the protesters. While a member since childhood, he said he does not have the strong Polish ties that most protesters do, and might feel differently if his grandparents helped build the church.

“We chose people over buildings. They are choosing the building over people,” he said.

Despite the protest, Courchesne said he feels the merging of the two parishes has gone well. He said members felt from the first Mass that they had created something new, instead of walking into someone else’s church.

Some of the Mater Dolorosa protesters are attending weekly Mass at Our Lady of the Cross while continuing the vigil. Others attend new churches, since most believe receiving weekly sacraments is important, Shirley Anop said.

Chester Cholewa, of Holyoke, who joined Mater Dolorosa 60 years ago after immigrating from Poland, translates the Friday prayer vigil for Anop and serves as lector for the weekly Polish mass at Our Lady of the Cross.

Cholewa said he wants to keep Mater Dolorosa open, in part, for historic reasons. The Polish people found a home and a place to worship in Holyoke after World War I and World War II, he said, and will lose that if the church closes.

“I come here every day, sometimes for a little while and sometimes for longer and I sleep here sometimes and I’m 87,” he said.


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