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Heritage and the Diocese

The closing of Mater Dolorosa in Holyoke fuels a battle involving church leadership, parishioners and a community that wants to preserve its history.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

In the late 19th century, the Lyman Street area of downtown Holyoke underwent a significant change. Once home to Irish immigrants, who’d arrived in the city in the 1840s to work on its dams and canals, the neighborhood now began to be dominated by Polish immigrants, many of whom came from across the river in Chicopee, said Olivia Mausel, chairwoman of the Holyoke Historical Commission. The newly arrived Poles opened shops and other businesses and built a Catholic church and school.

Over the years, the neighborhood underwent more changes, most notably during the urban renewal period in the 1950s. But a strong Polish influence remains in the area, from businesses like Kay’s Pastry Shop and the Polish Delicatessen to Pulaski and Kosciuszko parks, both named for Polish-born heroes of the American Revolution. In 2011, city officials began looking into creating a Polish Heritage Historic District in the neighborhood to preserve that piece of Holyoke history, an effort that has met with a good deal of support.

At the heart of the proposed district is the former Mater Dolorosa church—fittingly so, given the central role the church has played in Holyoke’s Polish community since it was built at the turn of the 20th century. But more recently, Mater Dolorosa has also been at the heart of an acrimonious dispute between its one-time parishioners and the Diocese of Springfield, which closed the church in 2011. A group of Mater Dolorosa parishioners has been fighting that closure and hopes that the creation of a historic district would protect the building from redevelopment.

The diocese, however, is expected to oppose the inclusion of the church in the district. Indeed, it’s already sued the city of Springfield over the creation of a similar district there, at the former Our Lady of Hope church. As the Holyoke historic district moves forward, elected officials likely will have to decide whether to risk a similar lawsuit in their own city.

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Mater Dolorosa was one of a number of parishes closed by the diocese is recent years in response to the dwindling numbers of churchgoers and priests and the financial pressures felt by the church. Mater Dolorosa was merged with another church in town, Holy Cross, to create the new Our Lady of the Cross parish.

But not all the parishioners were ready to leave. A group called the Friends of Mater Dolorosa filed an appeal of the diocese’s decision with the Vatican; the appeal is still pending. Meanwhile, after the final mass was said at Mater Dolorosa in June of 2011, a group of parishioners stayed behind, beginning an around-the-clock vigil at the church. (See “Fighting for Their Parish,” April 12, 2012, www.valleyadocate.com.) Working in shifts, the group occupied the church building for a year, leaving last summer after reaching an agreement with the diocese. The diocese, which has repeatedly expressed concern about the structural integrity of the church’s steeple—concerns the Friends of Mater Dolorosa, which hired its own engineer, dismiss—agreed that, other than addressing safety issues, it will leave the church as is until the Vatican releases its decision.

The Friends of Mater Dolorosa hope the church will be re-opened, perhaps as a chapel. Barring that, members hope the creation of a historic district—which would require property owners to win Historical Commission approval before making any changes to the exterior of their buildings—would prevent the diocese from selling the church to a developer who would make radical changes or even demolish the building.

Victor Anop, an attorney and leader of the Friends of Mater Dolorosa, described the church as the “linchpin” of Holyoke’s Polish community, the spiritual and cultural center of the neighborhood. If the diocese sells the church, he said, it would be a “slap in the face” to the faithful churchgoers who built and supported the parish for generations.

The situation at Mater Dolorosa bears a close resemblance to that at Springfield’s former Our Lady of Hope parish. That church, too, was the spiritual home of a devoutly Catholic immigrant group—in this case, the Irish of Hungry Hill. In 2009, OLOH was closed by the diocese and its parishioners merged with another church.

Later that year, the Springfield City Council approved the creation of a historic district that comprised the church property, in response to concerns from neighbors and former parishioners that the building would be demolished or dramatically altered. In response, the diocese sued the city, arguing in a federal lawsuit that the creation of the historic district was unconstitutional and a violation of its religious freedoms, subjecting a religious organization to inappropriate governmental control.

In 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor rejected those claims, ruling that, because the diocese had yet to submit any plans for Our Lady of Hope to the Springfield Historical Commission, it could not claim that it had been treated unfairly by any decision of the commission. His ruling did, however, suggest that if the Diocese did submit plans to change the building’s exterior it likely would be exempt from historic district regulations, and that the commission’s response to such an application would determine whether the diocese had a basis for legal action.

The diocese appealed Ponsor’s decision. The case is due to be heard in federal appeals court this spring.

Mark Dupont, the diocese’s director of public affairs, said the organization would likely pursue legal action against the city of Holyoke if it includes Mater Dolorosa in a historic district, on the same constitutional grounds as its lawsuit in the Our Lady of Hope case. As a resident of Holyoke, Dupont added, he doubts the financially struggling city would want to use its limited resources to fight such a lawsuit.

If the Friends of Mater Dolorosa are successful in getting the church included in the historic district, Dupont continued, “they could end up with a very shallow victory, with an empty building that could sit there unused,” with potential buyers scared off by the historic restrictions. “No developer, no interested party [wants to] have to deal with another government oversight body,” he said. “As well intentioned as [historic districts] are—I’d be the first to say I can appreciate their goals and instincts—they are actually very, very counterproductive.”

The diocese, Dupont said, has a track record of finding positive new uses for closed churches. In North Adams, for example, the city purchased the former Notre Dame church, and plans call for it to house arts and cultural programs. In Williamstown, the former St. Raphael was converted into affordable housing. Other closed churches have been bought by other religious denominations. “In all those instances we worked successfully, often with local officials, to find reuses that benefited the community,” Dupont said. “In none of those instances—zero—did we have to deal with historic restrictions.”

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Mausel said the Historical Commission would keep any restrictions on Mater Dolorosa “minimal.” The group, she said, simply wants to see the building maintained and its exterior not subjected to any dramatic changes. If the church isn’t re-opened by the Vatican, she hopes it will be purchased by someone who is sensitive to the building’s historical importance to both the neighborhood and its former parishioners. Some possible reuses she suggested: a function hall, a community center, or, best of all, a Polish heritage museum. “It would still keep the sacredness of the building to the people who remember it as a church … and also make it open to the community,” Mausel said,

The Historical Commission plans more hearings on the proposed Polish heritage district before eventually bringing it to the City Council, where it will need a two-thirds majority to pass. “I’m sure there will be questions about the involvement of the diocese and the other owners of the properties,” Mausel said. “The owners of the properties don’t necessarily have to be in favor of a historic district,” she added, noting that the final decision rests with the City Council.

Council President Kevin Jourdain said he’s sympathetic to both sides in the argument. He understands the importance Mater Dolorosa holds for its former parishioners and for the larger neighborhood. “I definitely appreciate the Polish heritage of that area, which has got long and deep roots,” he said.

At the same time, Jourdain added, he wants to ensure that the Council doesn’t interfere with the diocese’s right to religious expression without government intervention. “This is one of our fundamental civil liberties underpinnings,” he said. And finally, he said, his job as a councilor also requires that he try to protect the city from potential costly litigation.

Jourdain said he expects the complicated issues surrounding the historic district proposal will be clarified as it moves through the public process. It remains to be seen, he noted, if the Vatican will reverse the diocese’s decision to close Mater Dolorosa; if the parish reopens, the historic district matter would be moot. In addition, the outcome of diocese’s lawsuit over Springfield’s Our Lady of Hope district will have direct implications for the legality of the proposed Holyoke district. In the meantime, Jourdain said, “I’m keeping an open mind.”

Anop, of the Friends of Mater Dolorosa, said he doesn’t believe the threat of a lawsuit will stop Holyoke officials from approving the historic district, and he’s confident the diocese won’t win the Our Lady of Hope case. “They say their First Amendment rights override their responsibility to be a good corporate citizen in the community,” he said. “I think they should be exercising more corporate responsibility.”•

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