Chicopee Church Closings Cause Dilemma in One Parish

By Jeanette Deforge
The Republican
June 4, 2012

Rev. David Darcy, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church, stands in front of Assumption of the Blessed Mary Church where congregants of Holy Name will worship due to the closing of their church because of structural problems.

CHICOPEE The Rev. David Darcy jokes that sometimes he feels like Moses leading his flock from place to place.

The pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church has been facing one of the most complex church closings in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. A combination of precedent-setting rulings from the Vatican and a deteriorated church that was declared unsafe has left the parish with four churches and the question of where it should settle permanently.

"We are struggling with how to wrap our heads around it," Darcy said.

During the past decade the Springfield diocese has closed or merged nearly 70 churches in Western Massachusetts. The closings were followed by a few lawsuits and a flurry of appeals to the Vatican filed by parish members protesting the decision's by the bishop, the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell.

Most issues are now solved with the exception of appeals and lawsuits filed over merged churches in Northampton and the closing of Holyoke's Mater Dolorosa, where a 24-hour protest vigil continues daily in the church.

The largest outstanding issue is at the Holy Name parish in Chicopee, which is complicated by the financial pressure placed on the parish to maintain all the properties, said Monsignor John J. Bonzagni, the chairman of pastoral planning for the diocese.

When the diocese decided to close churches in Chicopee, it joined the parishes of St. Patrick, St. George, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Holy Name of Jesus together and ruled the new parish would worship at Holy Name on South Street, which was the first church in the diocese.

The expectation was the three other churches and attached buildings would be secularized and sold.

But a small renovation project at the Holy Name chapel in February 2011 uncovered serious termite damage on wooden structural beams and deteriorating masonry in the foundation at the church built in 1857, Darcy said.

"It was closed immediately. They said it wasn't safe," Darcy said.

That forced him to reopen Assumption, creating new turmoil for its former members, whose appeal to the Vatican had failed and they thought their church was closed for good.

Then, the Vatican delivered an unusual decision on the appeal of St. Patrick and St. George churches. It upheld the bishop's right to disband parishes but said both churches must be used for religious purposes.

"Now we have all this property we have to maintain and we cannot sell," Darcy said.

After the parish moved to Assumption, Darcy said he charged the about 15-member parish council with the mission of finding a permanent home for Holy Name.

At the same time the parish council had to make a decision about the Holy Name School, which had been facing a decline in enrollment for years. It decided to close it at the end of this school year.

"What is it that we need and what is it that we want?" he asked. "This isn't a history project. I'm concerned about the future."

When the parish merged, a new council was named which includes members of the four previous churches. Darcy said he understands the historical and emotional ties of all four buildings, but urged the group to focus on the parish's future.

"Unless we come together and make a decision it can never happen," he said.

Overwhelmed by the job, the council hired a facilitator who is also a church member and has experience with project management, he said.

The group's first move was to collect data on each property. It figured the number of buildings with each church, the size of every building, compared meeting halls, offices, rectories and classrooms. It gathered information about operational and maintenance costs, Darcy said.

"We looked at what I call the soft costs: the emotional ties, the location," he said.

Along with looking at moving to existing churches, the council is also considering demolishing the old Holy Name Church and replacing it.

None of the buildings is perfect. Each needs a lot of repairs and handicap accessibility is limited. Some do not have adequate gathering space, Darcy said.

Darcy said he expects it will take the council another year to make a decision. Then it will bring its findings to the entire parish for input and to make a final decision.

The diocese has supported Darcy's request for time so the parish council can work through the many issues. Bonzagni praised the group for its methodical approach.

"He is doing everything right. The problem is there is no solution that is going to make everyone happy," Bonzagni said.

Former members of St. Patrick's and Assumption continue to hope it will be their church which will be reopened permanently.

Margaret L. Page, who was one of the St. Patrick's members who filed the appeal, said she is hoping the diocese follows the Vatican rule and uses her church, instead of keeping it shuttered.

"I would be overjoyed to be able to reenter the church again and worship there," she said.

Since it closed, she elected to attend Mary Mother of Hope in Springfield.

Marie Meder, one of the Assumption members who appealed to the Vatican to keep her church open, said she is happy her church is now being used but has not joined Holy Name.

"It is fantastic they reopened. It is one of the most beautiful churches in the city," she said. "It is beautiful, inspirational and peaceful. It is a thrill to be back there."

But she knows it may not be permanent and said she never felt as Assumption was incorporated into the new parish, especially since it did not follow the typical practice of having merged churches adopt a new name.

"It is kind of in limbo," Meder said.


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