Editorial: Change and St. Mary's
Feb. 4, 2010
Changes as difficult as those begun by the Springfield Diocese inevitably take time to play out. In Northampton, traditions born of decades of parish identity are being remade as a single new Catholic parish seeks to establish itself where until weeks ago there were five.
There is no question that Bishop Timothy McDonnell had to act to align the diocese's diminished resources with the needs and means of the Catholics it serves. The bishop, working from information prepared after more than five years of planning, revealed his vision last summer for his institution's new face in Hampshire County. Most everyone understood that the changes would disappoint the faithful in affected communities like Northampton, Easthampton and Hatfield.
We hope the transitions to new parishes, new priests, new churches and new communities of the faithful proceed smoothly. A half year after the bishop announced changes for churches in the three Hampshire County communities, much remains unsettled. And now, former parishioners of St. Mary of the Assumption in Northampton are waiting to hear whether an appeal to the Vatican can save their church.
Because of its prominence downtown, St. Mary's is more than the private setting for Catholic worship, just as First Churches to the east is more than a sanctuary for Baptists and Congregationalists. Residents of Northampton are rightly concerned about the future of St. Mary's.
The appeal to Rome gives them even more to ponder.
After learning in November the bishop would order their church to be closed - after first designating it the home of a new combined parish - members of St. Mary's former administration and finance committee set out to fact-check a key piece of the bishop's reasoning: that keeping St. Mary's in use would be expensive.
In announcing that St. Mary's would close, Mark Dupont, a diocesan spokesman, cited concerns about parking and pedestrian and handicapped access. He also said it needed work totaling $1.3 million.
While Dupont has since stressed that figure was only an estimate, it signaled, at a time of cutbacks, that maintaining St. Mary's could burden the diocese financially. In two letters to St. Mary's parishioners, the bishop affirmed that the cost of fixing the church decided the case. In one letter, he called it "the overriding reason why I changed the original decision."
Within weeks, pressing to prepare an appeal to the Vatican, St. Mary's parishioners determined that for $25,000, they could repair missing or loose slate on their church's steeples and roof. They believe that spending is all that is needed to keep their church in use.
The bishop's order to close St. Mary's postpones any real reckoning on the church's needs. We hope officials move quickly to keep this architectural treasure in shape.
The diocese should consider making the more modest repairs the parish committee says are adequate. That work should be done regardless of the building's future use.
It is important to know which of the mismatched estimates on building work - $1.3 million or $25,000 - is closest to the truth. The truth is relevant to St. Mary's future, regardless of what the Congregation of the Clergy decides in Rome. St. Mary's will long be part of Northampton's landscape, in one capacity or another.
We hope emotions or politics tied to the difficult process of realigning Northampton's parishes do not cloud the issue of work St. Mary's deserves, after standing sentry at the downtown's western edge for 125 years.