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Parishioners sue to save church

Immaculate Conception Church is situated on Summer Street in Holyoke. The Diocese of Springfield plans to tear it down, but a group of parishioners wants to keep the church for its historical value. Reminder file photo
By Nate Luscombe

Staff writer

HOLYOKE In an effort to, at a minimum, delay the demolition of their church, the Immaculate Conception Preservation Fund (ICPF) is expecting to file a lawsuit against the Diocese of Springfield in coming weeks.

The lawsuit will request "all parish financial records pertaining to disposition of funds donated specifically for the church's renovation," according to a letter from the Fund to the Diocese of Springfield.

"We have lawyers from Boston and Holyoke working with us," said Joseph Melanson, president of the ICPF.

According to civil and Canon law, all money collected for a specific purpose, like renovations, can only be used for that reason, Melanson said.

He said the ICPF has received $1.2 million in donation money, but can't confirm that number until they get notification from the Diocese. Any money donated must be used for renovations, or returned to the donor, Melanson said.

Melanson said the Immaculate Conception Church on Summer Street is scheduled to be demolished any time after March 18.

Mark Dupont, spokesman for the Diocese of Springfield said the lawsuit isn't expected to delay the demolition of the building.

"[The suit] is pretty baseless, at least at face value," Dupont said.

In Melanson's letter to the diocese, he documents the income of the church, Dupont said, "but he leaves off the expenses. The church hasn't been living for free."

"It's clear that the expenses would have drained all the funds," he added.

Dupont said Bishop Timothy McDonnell has reassigned the $1 million dollars that was given to the Immaculate Conception parish after an insurance company settlement. After Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on Chestnut Street burned in 1999, the diocese collected an $18 million settlement, which it distributed throughout the greater Holyoke area.

Half of the settlement was set aside for the possible construction of a new Holyoke Catholic High School; $6 million was given to the Our Lady of Guadeloupe parish, $2 million was given for scholarships, and $1 million to the Immaculate Conception parish to help maintain the parish, Dupont said.

The ICPF was formed in early 2004 with the mission of preserving the church.

"It's historically and architecturally significant to the city of Holyoke," Melanson said. "It's a valuable asset."

The Immaculate Conception Church was founded in 1903, Melanson said. The original church building has since become the parish hall. The current church was built and dedicated in 1927.

Melanson said the church was thought to be "structurally unsound," but an engineering study paid for by the ICPF concluded the building was just fine.

"It's built on steel tresses with a brick and stone faade," he said. "The Empire State Building was built the same way."

The building has had very few repairs in its almost 80-year history, Melanson said.

"Just a few minor repairs," he said. "Otherwise, it's withheld the elements pretty well for 80 years."

Dupont said that while demolition of a church often means the abandonment of a parish, the Immaculate Conception parish will remain active.

"We're trying to keep a Catholic presence in the less affluent neighborhoods in Holyoke," Dupont said. "You don't see many people sinking $1 million into the flats these days."

Once the existing church is torn down, Dupont said the diocese plans to build a new, smaller church.

"We don't have 1,100 people worshipping every weekend any more. At most, we have 200 or 300," Dupont said. "And that's spread out over three or four masses."

"It was a sad decision [to tear down the church]," Dupont added.