A federal appeals court ruling last week kept intact a historic district at Springfield’s former Our Lady of Hope church—a ruling that could affect a similar campaign to preserve a closed parish in Holyoke.
Our Lady of Hope, built in the early 20th century by Irish Catholic immigrants in Springfield’s Hungry Hill neighborhood, shut its doors in 2009, one of many parishes closed by the Springfield Catholic diocese as part of a larger plan to consolidate parishes in the face of declining church membership and a shortage of priests. In response to pressure from parishioners and other residents who were concerned that the Italian Renaissance-style stone church building could face the same fate as the former St. Joseph’s—that church, in the city’s South End, had been sold and then demolished—the City Council passed an ordinance creating a single-parcel historic district at the site. That means that the diocese, or any future owner, must seek the approval of the Springfield Historical Commission before it can make any changes to the building’s exterior.
The diocese sued the city, arguing that the ordinance violates its freedom of religious expression by allowing the government control over what it does with the crosses, stained glass windows and other religious items on the church’s exterior. It also argued that ordinance was politically motivated and that the city has demonstrated hostility against the diocese. After a U.S. District Court ruled against the plaintiffs, the diocese appealed the decision, leading to last week’s ruling. (See “Preserving History or Violating the First Amendment,” May 3, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.)
The appeals court ruling, like the district court ruling before it, noted that it was premature for the diocese to claim that its religious rights had been violated, as it’s yet to submit any plans for the building to the Historical Commission for approval. “Nothing has yet been presented to the SHC,” the ruling read, noting that the diocese filed the lawsuit the day after the ordinance went into effect. “As such, the City has had no opportunity to demonstrate whether or not it will accommodate some, all, or none of [the Diocese’s] requests for changes to the exterior of the Church. ... Without knowing what [the Diocese] can or cannot do with the Church under the Ordinance, we cannot know to what extent, if any, [the Diocese] will suffer from a burden on its religious practice.”
The court did note, however, “some troubling circumstances surrounding the City’s enactment of the Ordinance”—for instance, the fact that the city showed no interest in creating an Our Lady of Hope historic district until the closing was announced, and the haste with which city officials approved its creation. The City Council, the court noted, passed the ordinance “despite repeated requests by [the Diocese] for a legal consultation” and without the legal advice of the city Law Department.
Ultimately, the court said, “these troubling facts surrounding the enactment of the Ordinance” did not affect the ruling, which found that the creation of the historic district did not violate the diocese’s rights. Still, it continued, if the diocese does end up challenging a decision by the Historical Commission in the future, “the significance of the Ordinance’s background can be evaluated anew.”
In an email to the Advocate, Ralph Slate, chairman of the Historical Commission, said he was “very happy that the court affirmed the right of the city to include religious properties in historic districts, since churches are among the most architecturally and historically significant buildings in the city.
“The Springfield Historical Commission looks forward to working with the Roman Catholic Diocese in a way that is respectful to the needs of both the City and the Church,” Slate added.
The diocese, meanwhile, issued a statement noting that the ruling “cautioned the Springfield Historic Commission … not to engage in transgressing ‘forbidden lines of challenging liturgical criteria or conclusions,’ and left open further court action by the diocese.” The press release also reiterated Bishop Timothy McDonnell’s “longstanding commitment that whenever possible, appropriate re-use of church properties is always the initial goal.
“The diocese has been quite successful in many communities, finding appropriate re-use,” the statement continued, “but never in a situation in which the ‘historic district’ designation has been invoked, rather through mutual cooperation with local officials.”
Meanwhile, in Holyoke, residents hoping to secure historic district protection for the former Mater Dolorosa church see the Springfield ruling as boding well for their effort. Plans are underway in that city that would include Mater Dolorosa, which was closed in 2011, in a larger Polish Heritage Historic District, although the diocese had indicated that it could pursue a similar legal challenge if that happened. (See “Heritage and the Diocese,” March 19, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.)
In a press release after the Springfield ruling was announced, attorney Victor Anop, a leader of the campaign to save Mater Dolorosa, said, “This historic ruling paves the way toward the approval of a Polish Heritage District, including the Mater Dolorosa Church in Holyoke, as the mayor and City Council of Holyoke now know that threats of disingenuous lawsuits by the Bishop have no standing.”
The proposed Holyoke district is expected to come before the City Council for approval in September.•