About 40 people attended a meeting Wednesday on the planned purchase of St. James the Great Church in Wellesley, asking about the parishioners holding vigil inside, the town’s plans to build a senior center, and the overall cost of the project.
Last month, the town’s Board of Selectmen signed a purchase and sale with the Archdiocese of Boston to buy the 8-acre parcel on Route 9 for $3.8 million. They plan to tear down the shuttered church that currently occupies the site and build a swimming pool, skating rink and playing field. The sale is contingent upon Town Meeting approval.
It’s an unusual land deal – the church comes with occupants. Though it was closed by the archdiocese in 2004, a small group of parishioners have refused to leave, calling it their spiritual home.
They have filed appeals with the Vatican to have their parish reopened, but so far have been unsuccessful. They have one more appeal left, though they have not yet said whether they will make it.
The sale of the property is contingent upon the appeals process being completed.
Some residents worried about what will happen if the appeals process is completed and the parishioners still won’t leave.
Selectman Donald McCauley said that the terms of the purchase and sale make the archdiocese responsible for the parishioners as long as the canonical appeals are still going on. But once the appeals process is completed, the parishioners’ presence at the church will become a matter of civil law.
“If they are still in the church because under canon law, they’re allowed to still be in the church, then the town can back away from the deal,” said McCauley. “If they’ve exhausted all their appeals – if they don’t have the right as a matter of civil law to be in the church – at that point, the town will have to ask them to leave.”
Asking them to leave, said McCauley, could include involving the police.
“I can appreciate that neither the church nor the town wants to be the one to evict the parishioners,” said Wellesley resident Rusty Kellogg. “I don’t know why they shouldn’t deliver us the property room cleaned, empty. While it would be unpleasant and a black eye for the church, I think it would be worse for the town.”
McCauley said that if the parishioners decline to leave the property, whether it was the archdiocese or the town that was responsible for their departure, the police would probably need to be involved. He said the town feels that the parishioners are much more likely to leave gracefully if asked to do so by the town and not the archdiocese, with whom they have a fraught relationship.
Selectwoman Katherine Babson said that the town is working with the parishioners to avoid such a scenario.
A representative for the parishioners could not immediately be reached for comment.
Most residents at Wednesday’s meeting were supportive of the plan, though some had concerns about the town’s commitment to building a senior center.
“Is this project going to affect the building of the senior center?” asked Wellesley resident William Moynihan. “By spending $3.8 million on this by building these buildings, what does that do – how far down does the senior center go on the list?”
The town has been planning to build a senior center for several years, but the effort has stalled over the question of location.
McCauley said that the town is still considering alternate uses for the property, but that even if the land is used for a recreational complex, it won’t bump the senior center down the town’s list of priorities.
“The senior center remains a tremendously high priority for the Board of Selectmen,” he said. “We don’t view this as a zero sum game – as this gets done and the senior center gets put off in some way.”
The Board will discuss the senior center on Tuesday, he said.
McCauley assuaged resident fears of the project creating a hefty tax burden on Wellesley citizens, saying that 70 percent of the purchase of the land would be financed with Community Preservation Act funds, which are funds that the town already has and does not need to raise through taxes.
The creation of the field would be financed with the same funds, he said. The town hopes to fund the pool and skating rink with public-private partnerships, he said. Details are still being worked out on financing, he said.
The next public meeting on the property will be held tonight at 7:30 in Town Hall. There will be a final meeting on Sunday at 3 p.m. in the police station.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org