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City, diocese still at odds over historic designation for church

Date: 1/4/2010

Jan. 4, 2010

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- The City Council unanimously approved its final vote on making Our Lady of Hope Church a historic district despite a warning from the lawyer representing the diocese that creating the district would violate legal precedents concerning the separation of church and state.

Before a standing room only audience in the council chamber at City Hall, Attorney John Egan said the diocese, though, is "not looking for a fight."

The ordinance now will go to Mayor Domenic Sarno for his approval. When recently asked if he would support the action, he told Reminder Publications, "I would seriously consider it."

The historic designation would prevent the diocese from demolishing the church or from selling it to a developer with the intent of removing it. Speaking to this newspaper before the meeting, Mark Dupont, the spokesperson for the diocese, explained the diocese is not opposed to the preservation of closed churches and said there are examples in North Adams, West Springfield and Feeding Hills where a re-use has been done without altering the structure and without any legal protections such as this one.

He added that in Pittsfield a church found new life with weavers and an artisan center, while in Williamstown, a housing project was built at a parish.

"The history [of church re-use in the diocese] is so clear, these concerns are unfounded," Dupont said.

A designation of a historic district might discourage developers, he added.

"Despite the stated goal, [a historic designation] may have the opposite effect," he said.

Dupont said the demolition of St. Joseph's in the South End neighborhood came about when no developer could be found who would preserve the building.

Dupont, like Egan, stopped short of saying the diocese would sue the city over the decision if Sarno approves it.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Dupont said. "The city should get legal guidance."

The parish closed Dec. 31 as part of the pastoral planning effort that has closed parishes throughout the region. State Rep. Sean Curran, who led the effort for the historic designation, told the City Council the campaign was not a move to try to keep the church open, but rather to preserve the building that "represents the history of the Irish citizens in Springfield."

Curran disputed the claim that the move violates the separation of church and state and while he acknowledges the designation could be a "burden" to the diocese, it is the same as a homeowner living in a historic house.

Ralph Slate, the chair of the city's Historic Commission, said there is "ample precedent in the city" for making the church a historic site.

Egan said historic preservation status is "involvement by government in the internal affairs of a church."

Answering a question posed by Councilor Rosemarie Mazza-Moriarty, Egan said there are no immediate plans for the church after it closes and there are no proposals involving it.