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Preservationists fear church closings

The architectural landscape of Eastern Massachusetts, dominated in so many communities by church steeples and bell towers, is at risk of being diminished as the region's largest religious denomination, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, prepares to shutter a significant number of parishes, preservationists say.

Preservation groups, who have had an often unhappy history with Catholic church leaders in Boston, have begun quietly meeting with church officials and with government agencies in an effort to prevent the destruction of church buildings that they say have come to define many neighborhoods, and that in some cases are of historical or architectural significance. The preservationists, seeking to avoid confrontation with the archdiocese, say that they understand and respect the archdiocese's need and right to close churches, but that they want to help the church preserve buildings associated with parishes that do close.

``We have seen, on a national basis, a burgeoning trend of historic religious properties being abandoned because of shrinking congregations, flight to the suburbs, and declining clergy, especially in the Catholic Church,'' said Marilyn M. Fenollosa, senior program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Northeast office. ``These buildings have stood as community landmarks from the time they were built, and many of them deserve to be preserved because they are important architecturally, historically, and from a community perspective.''

At stake is an undetermined portion of the vast holdings of the Archdiocese of Boston, which include 357 churches and hundreds of associated buildings in 144 cities and towns in Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Suffolk Counties. In the city of Boston alone, the

archdiocese owns 62 churches, 55 rectories, 46 schools, 38 convents, 10 parish halls, and 14 other parish buildings, as well as another 14 buildings at the archdiocesan headquarters, 62 undeveloped parcels, and numerous parks and shrines, according to a survey by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

The leading preservation groups in Massachusetts, including PreservatiON MASS, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Boston Preservation Alliance, the Lowell Historic Board, Historic Salem Inc., Historic Boston Inc., the Boston Landmarks Commission, and the Cambridge Historical Commission, have formed a coalition to attempt to preserve Catholic church buildings. The coalition, which has begun meeting weekly, is trying to

decide how best to reduce the likelihood that significant buildings will be torn down.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, who plans in May to announce an unspecified number of parish closings, has made no public comments about preservation issues, or about his priorities for reuse of shuttered church buildings, but he has already hired a real estate adviser to manage the disposition of the multiple buildings the archdiocese expects to sell. His spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said that ``questions of art and architecture

have been taken into account as a factor when discussion has been raised about closing a parish, but it is one among many factors.''

Coyne said the archdiocese is interested in preserving important church buildings, even if they cease being used as parishes, and he said the archdiocese is open to selling closed churches to other denominations - the strategy preservationists say is most likely to protect the buildings.

``If a piece of property has been deemed historically significant, it will impact the future use or sale of the building,'' Coyne said. ``The archdiocese desires to maintain these buildings as much as possible.''

Preservationists have in the past lost significant battles with Catholic officials in Boston, most notably in 1990, when the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Boston Landmarks Commission could not require the Jesuit religious order to preserve the interior of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Boston's South End. That decision has had an ironic aftermath - the Jesuits sought to convert part of the sanctuary into offices because of declining attendance at worship; after they did so, the church became a magnet for gay Catholics and is now one of the more vibrant congregations in the area, and the new Jesuit leaders are attempting to restore the church to some of its former glory.

The archdiocese, far more than any Protestant denomination, has also been extraordinarily zealous in guarding its constitutional rights to free exercise of religion, routinely turning down preservation grants because of a concern about accompanying restrictions.

``Most of our efforts with the archdiocese have been a struggle, because when we give financial assistance for preservation, we get a preservation restriction on a building, and the archdiocese has been very resistant to any such restrictions. In the instances when they have accepted money, we've had to go through incredible gymnastics to apply the restrictions only to certain architectural features,'' said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who serves as chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Commission. ``We've given assistance to over 70 other houses of worship throughout Massachusetts that we have deemed historically significant, and we've never had this problem with anybody but them.''

Coyne said the archdiocese has attempted to preserve important church properties. As an example, he cited the archdiocese's cooperation with Newburyport officials to preserve the building that had been St. Louis de Gonzague Church, which was closed in 1999 and converted into housing.

Many of Massachusetts's best-known church properties are Protestant. The most famous work of church architecture in the state is Trinity Church in Boston, an Episcopal parish, and most of the iconic white-steepled churches on New England's town greens are owned by United Church of Christ or Unitarian Universalist Association congregations.

But preservationists say numerous Catholic church properties are important as examples of particular architectural styles or historic developments, and that the churches often stand as important landmarks in their local neighborhoods.

For example, St. Margaret Church in Beverly Farms is a rare example of the Shingle style; Blessed Sacrament Church in Jamaica Plain, a Renaissance Revival-style church, has an octagonal dome that is a major local landmark; and Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston is valued for its cathedral-like interior. Each has been recommended for closure by local or regional church officials, although the archdiocese has not decided their future.

Preservationists are also worried about churches such as St. Anthony of Padua, a Romanesque Revival-style church in Allston, and the classical Mary Immaculate of Lourdes, with its monumental columned portico, in Newton Upper Falls. Neither church has been publicly recommended for closure, but each is vulnerable because it is located in an area with more parishes than are currently needed to serve the number of current worshipers.

``Would we stand in front of a bulldozer for a particular church? I don't know yet,'' said James W. Igoe, president of PreservatiON MASS. ``But when you start hearing the rumors of how many churches might be closed, it's amazing.''

Some of the archdiocese's most important architectural holdings are already in transition. Of the four archdiocesan complexes in Boston that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, two, St. Stephen Church in the North End and St. Joseph parish complex in Roxbury, have already been closed as parishes, and a third, St. Augustine Chapel and cemetery in South Boston, is associated with a parish that has been recommended for closure this year. The fourth complex, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, is not at risk, despite low numbers of participants at worship, because cathedrals serve as the symbolic center of Catholic dioceses.

St. Stephen's is arguably the archdiocese's most architecturally valuable property because it is the only surviving church in Boston designed by Charles Bulfinch, who also designed the Massachusetts State House. The church was suppressed as a parish in 1992, and is now home to the Missionary Society of St. James.

The archdiocese expects to seek to sell the St. Joseph complex in Roxbury, Coyne said. St. Stephen Church ``is in need of a lot of repairs,'' he said, but ``there are currently no plans to sell it.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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