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Town of Wellesley has big plans for St. James the Great Church

Posted by Evan Allen  April 4, 2012 11:09 PM

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The Wellesley Board of Selectmen outlined their plan to buy St. James the Great Church on Route 9 and turn it into a playing field, swimming pool and ice rink at a special meeting Wednesday night, two days after they signed a purchase and sale agreement for $3.8 million with the Archdiocese of Boston.

In one sprawling building, they envision an eight-lane pool and a full-sized ice rink; a fitness center with machines and weights; a tot-splash area and a warm-water therapy pool. Next to the pool and rink: a full-sized playing field, lit up at night.

Though the town is already facing a budget deficit of nearly $5 million next year, Wellesley’s Executive Director Hans Larsen said that most of the money for the purchase would come from Community Preservation funds, not from an override or debt exclusion.

“It will have a minimal impact on a potential override,” he said.

Town Counsel Albert Robinson said that the town hopes to close the sale this fall.

The plans are grand, but the purchase is fraught. The church was shuttered in 2004 by the archdiocese, but a small group of parishioners have refused to leave. They say the church is their spiritual home, and they’ve fought its closing with appeals to the Vatican.

The sale of the 8-acre parcel is dependent on Town Meeting approval, and on the resolution of the appeals process.

St. James was deconsecrated last July, and parishioners have appealed to reverse the deconsecration. Deconsecration turns a house of worship into a secular building. Their latest appeal was recently denied, but they still have the right to appeal one last time to the highest court of the Vatican.

Suzanne Hurley, spokesperson for the parishioners, has said that they will likely make that appeal.

A spokesperson for the archdiocese said he didn’t want to guess how long an appeal would tie up the sale process.

Robinson said that if the appeals aren’t resolved, the town can back out of the sale.

“If canon law is not totally completed and out of the way, then the town reserves all rights on the entire transaction,” he said. “If anything goes wrong, the archdiocese indemnifies the town.”

The town has been mulling over what it could do with the St. James property since the archdiocese announced its closing in 2004, said officials.

Andy Wrobel, Chair of the Recreation Commission and a member of the St. James Committee, said at Wednesday’s meeting that the St. James property would allow the town to meet its growing need for recreation space.

Growing school enrollment numbers and increasing activity participation rates, he said, have strained the town’s green space. And Wellesley has no town swimming pool or skating rink.

Wrobel said that the town is hoping for private groups to finance the building and running of the swimming pool and skating rink. Public money will only fund the purchase of the land, he said.

“We are not talking about the town getting into the ice rink business, and we are not talking about the town getting into a fitness center, public pool business,” he said.

Private developers or private fundraising could pay to build the pool and rink, he said, after the town and Community Preservation Act funds cover the land they will sit on.

The playing field would likely be built first, said Wrobel, since it’s the cheapest and easiest of the three big projects. The hockey rink would be built second, and the pool would be last.

Several residents spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, voicing concerns that the town’s focus on the recreation center would edge out its commitment to building a senior center. Selectmen said they were still committed to the senior center plan.

One resident said she didn’t want her tax dollars spent tearing down a church.

“I’m an advocate for the word of God,” said Kim Mahoney, who said she was not one of the parishioners holding vigil in the church.

“There’s a group there that wants to promote the word of God, I want to see that happen. I don’t want to see my CPA money go towards a church coming down and a sports center going up.”

Town officials acknowledged that the purchase of the land and the demolition of the church will grieve some residents.

“All of us know this is a heartfelt and very difficult thing for those that have spent their church years at St. James the Great,” said Robinson.

He said that the town had offered to put a memorial plaque in the new recreation center.

“That’s not going to be enough to some of those parishioners, and we appreciate that,” he said. “It’s an effort to be respectful.”

The town will begin holding a series of public meetings starting in May, said officials, to get feedback from residents on the St. James plan.

There will be an Advisory Committee public meeting on May 16.

There will be a Special Town Meeting on June 13 where town meeting members will vote on whether to approve the purchase of the St. James the Great parcel.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com

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