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Catholic churches put on historic endangered places list

The National Trust for Historic Preservation today named all of the historic Catholic churches of Greater Boston to its list of the 11 most endangered historic places in the nation.

The Washington-based preservation organization said the Archdiocese of Boston's ongoing effort to close about 80 of its 357 parishes has placed many church buildings at risk of total or partial demolition.

The organization, saying the loss of urban church buildings is a nationwide problem, said it will work with Boston-area preservation advocates and local officials to encourage reuse of the buildings by other churches or by developers who will preserve the structures.

"We think that there are a number of significant structures here, and we hope that we can work with others in the community to try to find new ways of using these churches,'' Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in an interview.

Moe said that some of the archdiocesan churches slated for closure are historic or architecturally significant, while others are significant because of their importance to local communities.

"Architecture is one factor, but the other factor is the attachment so many communities have to these places,'' he said. "We're not saying every old building ought to be saved, but a serious process needs to be established to look at these structures. We just hope there won't be immediate, wholesale demolition, but you have to worry about that.''

The Archdiocese of Boston has closed 63 parishes since last summer, and is preparing to close about another 17. The next church slated to close is Holy Trinity in the South End, on June 30.

Thus far, none of the churches closed by Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley has been demolished, although in the past some churches closed by the archdiocese have faced the wrecking ball, including, just this year, St. Joseph Church in Roxbury, which had closed in 2002 and had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The archdiocese has announced the sale of one property, the closed Sacred Heart Church and its rectory in Medford, to Tufts University. But the archdiocese has also announced that it has signed purchase and sale agreements to sell nine other properties associated with closing parishes. Seven properties, in Cambridge, Lowell, Medford, Rockport, Quincy, Salem and Waltham, are being sold to housing developers, and two, in Hyde Park and Malden, are being sold to Protestant congregations.

The closings have been controversial, and eight of the closed parishes, in Brookline, East Boston, Everett, Framingham, Scituate, Sudbury, Wellesley and Weymouth, have been occupied, in some cases for months, by protesters who are refusing to leave in an effort to reopen the churches. O'Malley has reversed or altered a handful of closing decisions, and is reconsidering several others; multiple parishes have also appealed closing decisions to the Vatican, and several are suing in civil courts.

A coalition of preservation organizations in the 144 cities and towns of the archdiocese have been meeting together since O'Malley announced in late 2003 that he was planning to close a large number of parishes because of a dwindling number of priests and worshipers, demographic shifts, and a financial crunch.

According to Wendy Nicholas, the Northeast regional director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, activists believe that perhaps half of the approximately 80 closing churches "could be considered historic and architecturally significant.''

"It's shocking to see how many church buildings are being shuttered by the archdiocese,'' she said. "These are very much important treasured landmarks, and their steeples and domes and towers punctuate the skyline at marquee intersections.''

But Nicholas said the buildings can by "very hard to reuse.''

"The best use of a church is as a church, and the second best use is as a performance hall, where the volume of space in the sanctuary can be used intact,'' she said.

The designation does not bring money, but Nicholas said it can help communities and advocates focus attention. The History Channel has agreed to broadcast public service announcements about the endangered historic places starting today and running through the summer, according to the National Trust.

Nicholas said the purpose of including the churches on the list of endangered places is to call public attention to the issue of preservation. She said the National Trust is not attempting to prevent the parish closings, but wants to insure that the buildings are not lost.

"Including these churches on an annual list of America's most endangered historic places is a way of getting people to think about the enormity of the situation, and the enormity of the potential loss of historic structures, and to get the elected officials and the community leaders where these buildings will be closed to reach out to the real estate community, realtors or developers or architects, to get them thinking creatively about how to come up with a viable plan for preservation,'' she said.

Nicholas said few of the archdiocesan churches have been designated as landmarks, so preservation is up to local officials and communities.

"Local officials will have some say over reuse through the process of local zoning, and that gives local communities some measure of control to encourage retention of existing buildings,'' she said.

The other properties listed yesterday as endangered include a Florida hotel and the site of a Revolutionary War prison camp in Pennsylvania.

For the first time, the National Trust is listing as endangered a property outside the United States, Finca Vigia, a house in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba that was Ernest Hemingway's home from 1939 to 1960. Among those spearheading the effort to protect that house are Jenny Phillips of Concord, a granddaughter of Hemingway's long-time editor, Maxwell Perkins, and U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, a Democrat from Worcester.

The National Trust has previously listed as endangered six sites in Massachusetts, including in 1988 and 1989 the Old Deerfield Historic District, in 1990 and 1991 Walden Pond and Woods, in 1994 Cape Cod, in 1995 the Historic Boston Theaters, in 2000 Nantucket, and in 2003 Minute Man National Historical Park and Environs.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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