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Residents support creation of Polish Heritage District

Date: 3/1/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE — At the end of the meeting of the Holyoke Historical Commission designed to introduce the area of the city to be designated as a Polish Heritage Historic District, Olivia Mausel, chair of the commission, asked the more than 100 people gathered at Holyoke Heritage State Park for a show of hands of those who approve the idea.

The response at the Feb. 26 meeting was immediate and unanimous.

The proposed district would include Mater Dolorosa Church, the subject of a prolong conflict between the Diocese of Springfield and its parishioners. The church, which was built by Polish immigrants at the turn of the century, was closed in 2011 as part of the diocese-wide reorganization and the parishioners were told to attend a new merged parish, Our Lady of the Cross.

By putting the church in the center of the historic district, the church's supporters hope to prevent the diocese from demolishing the structure, which the diocese has long asserted had significant structural flaws.

Victor Anop, a Chicopee resident, but a native of Holyoke and a member of the parish, told Reminder Publications he has carefully watched rulings made so far in the case of Our Lady of Hope Church in Springfield. That church, also closed by the diocese, was designated by the city as a historic district to prevent the diocese from demolishing it. That case is now headed to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

The Holyoke parishioners are still waiting for a final ruling from the Vatican on the church, Anop said. To date, Vatican officials have prevented the diocese from any action, such as demolishing it or selling it, as well as stopping the parishioners from staging prayer vigils in the church.

Anop believes Mater Dolorosa could be re-opened as a chapel as St. Patrick's Church in Chicopee has been.

Mausel explained to the audience that historic district designation would prevent any owner of Mater Dolorosa from altering its exterior. A separate additional historic status would have to be undertaken to preserve the church's interior features, she added.

Mausel said that in preparation for a new historic district an inventory of historic buildings has been completed and a survey taken of those elements of the neighborhood around the church the residents believed deserved protection. She said that Kosciuszko Park, the church, its school and social center were all listed. She said the district could be extended to include buildings on Lyman Street and the former train station.

She gave a quick history of the Polish presence in the city starting with the first Polish immigrants arriving in 1888, the first Polish Roman Catholic priest in 1896 and the building of the Mater Dolorosa Church in 1901. She said that by 1917, the height of the Paper City's population, there were 66 Polish-owned businesses in the city.

When asked why the diocese had closed the church, Mausel declined to answer, but she did say her experience with the demolition of Immaculate Conception Church in 2006 indicated the diocese was "very difficult to deal with and not very cooperative."

She said that establishing a historic district was "a very strong way to protect it."

Mausel said the City Council would have to approve the creation of the district by a two-thirds vote. She urged those attending to contact their councilor and Mayor Alex Morse to express their approval. Mausel expressed hope the council would address the issue in March or April.

One of the advantages of creating the district is the potential increase of property values that usually comes with such a step, she said.

Although one of the lawyers for the diocese, Stephen Spelman, attended the meeting he declined to comment and only said, "I'm here to listen."