Vatican upholds closure of church
The Vatican has upheld the Springfield Diocese’s decision to close a Holyoke parish it says has serious debt and an unsafe steeple, but parishioners who have been occupying the church round-the-clock since June said they will not leave.
The diocese announced yesterday that the Vatican had backed its decisions to merge Mater Dolorosa parish and a cross-town parish, Holy Cross, and to shut down the Mater Dolorosa church building.
The diocese said the parish has $750,000 in debt and a steeple in such bad shape it jeopardizes the whole building.
In a statement, Bishop Timothy McDonnell of Springfield said he hoped those occupying the Mater Dolorosa church accept the Vatican’s decision and join the newly formed parish, Our Lady of the Cross, “despite the disappointment felt by those appealing the parish closing.’’
But Victor Anop, a leader of the vigil, said the parishioners would appeal the Vatican ruling, adding they were prepared to occupy the church indefinitely.
Anop said the parish’s debt doesn’t justify closing it, and that the parish was vibrant and could resolve its financial issues if given a chance. He said a structural review of the church by an engineer hired by the protesters showed only relatively minor repairs are needed on the steeple, indicating the diocese’s concerns about its safety are far overblown.
“If I thought, as an attorney, that any of my people or myself or my wife were in jeopardy, we wouldn’t be there,’’ he said.
In August 2009, the diocese announced the decision to close the 115-year-old church - which was founded by Polish immigrants - and later set a shutdown date for this summer. But McDonnell was confronted by angry protesters when he visited the church in the days before its scheduled closing, and then parishioners refused to leave at the end of the final Mass in June. Since then a rotating group of about 100 parishioners has occupied the church, Anop said.
A similar vigil in nearby Adams has continued since December 2008. In the Boston area, a handful of churches have been in vigil since 2004 to protest parish closings.
The Vatican has recently rejected attempts by dioceses - including in Allentown, Pa., and Springfield - to shut down the church buildings at closed parishes and covert them to secular use, so they can be sold.
Anop, though, said his group’s appeal will be based on new information on the building’s structural integrity that was not considered in the initial decision.
Dupont said he is hopeful that the Vatican decision will lead the people occupying the Mater Dolorosa church to “do the right thing’’ and end the vigil. The structural problems with the steeple are serious, the work to shore it up must be done soon, and people can’t be inside when it is, he said.
If those in vigil won’t leave, “the next avenue for us would have to be to go to the courts, perhaps, and we certainly hope that’s not necessary,’’ he said.
Anop said his group is ready to respond in court. “If they do that, they’ll get an awfully bad [legal] black eye,’’ he said.