"Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her."
The Sunday mass readings for Nov. 6 were largely about wisdom. It gives an occasion to reflect on Bishop McDonnell's wisdom in trying to shut down Mater Dolorosa parish by claiming the steeple was unsafe. This may seem an issue upon which reasonable people can disagree. After all, some of the engineers quoted in news accounts are convinced the steeple is in lousy shape, while others are not so sure. Central to the credibility of the decree is whether or not the Building Inspector of Holyoke ever received a copy of engineering reports from the Diocese, and whether or not he made the statements attributed to him in the decree. Those issues are addressed in a report from the media reprinted here.
But, the more important issues go back a longer way.
I like to think that the protest lodged with the Vatican back in the fall of 2006 over the closing of a small church in South Lee has something to do with Steeplegate. At that time, the universal attitude of contented Catholics was: "don't question parish closings, it's useless." However, one of the church members, Brody Hale, disagreed with this gloomy assessment. Partially, this is because over the summer he had visited and been inspired by several of the half-dozen or so parishes in the Boston area that protested their closings. His conclusion was that as bad as Catholic church decision-making had seemed in recent years, it was not yet hopeless for disenfranchised parishioners to pursue justice. Additionally, his own faith demanded it.
Brody and I filed a complaint about how the church was closed, and although we didn't win, the parishioners of St. Francis Church were at least recognized by the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington and the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican as parties "with standing." We had the satisfaction of seeing our Recourse, which detailed the lack of wisdom displayed by McDonnell, count by count, made part of the permanent record at the Vatican. This, I felt at the time, was significant. It was a proof, however small, of fairness within the system.
Fast forward now to the parish-closing program of Bishop McDonnell, generally known as Pastoral Planning. Very early in the process of losing some 69 or so churches it became apparent that there was discontent among the laity about the so-called "listening sessions," and about whether parishes were fairly represented, even if many agreed that some closings were necessary.
The response of Bishop McDonnell was interesting. Instead of opening up the decision-making, he closed it down. Instead of greater transparency, he enforced greater secrecy. In fact, the financial reports of the Diocese, never very forthcoming to begin with, lost detail each year, and then stopped altogether. This 2 1/2 year period of non-disclosure coincided with the height of the church-closing frenzy.
At the same time, If you look at the language of the closing decrees, you see an escalation. This can be traced very concretely to two historic phases: during the first, the Vatican upheld local Bishops' decisions almost unilaterally. In the second phase, even the Vatican began to push back, questioning if there was not some use that could be made of the churches, as long as there were parishioners still interested in keeping them. The two phases can be seen in the Bishop's decree for Mater Dolorosa reprinted here: Canon 515.2 refers to the simple closing or merger of the parish, and Canon 1222.2 refers to the question of what to do with the church building (whether it stays a church, or is given over to other uses, which must be profane but not sordid). It is the implementation of the second Canon that was suddenly being contested, and overturned, by the Vatican.
However, it soon became clear that if a Bishop could reasonably claim a "grave cause" to close the church (and not just his own opinion) he stood a much greater chance of having Canon 1222.2 stick. The way this played out in practice in the U. S. was that, in one instance, parishioners came to church, heard mass, and went home, and when they came to church the next day they found a "closed for structural repairs" sign stuck on the door, with no advance warning or apparent cause whatsoever. A crazy story, but an accurate one, nonetheless.
This helps to explain why Bishop McDonnell's decrees became longer and longer, why his reasoning became increasingly "creative," and why "grave cause" is a key phrase in the latest ones. His decrees insist on many things: on the fairness of the Pastoral Planning system; on the weight of the professional, economic and academic studies that were done which resulted in the closings; and on the supposedly complete accord that the priests and people of the diocese have with the Bishop over the necessity of doing things the Bishop's way. Meanwhile, as previously stated, the Vatican overruled several bishops about church closings, including Bishop McDonnell, and ordered parishes re-opened.
Again, the response of McDonnell was interesting. Did he obey? Nope. Did he re-open St. Stan's in Adams, or St. Patrick's in Chicopee? Nope. Instead, he filed appeals. While this is his right, it does make you wonder who the ultimate authority in church government really is. Is it the Pope? The clergy, generally? The people? The Bishop? Much hangs on the answer, and it is far from clear.
For the rest of this post, I will simply record two things: the language used by Bishop McDonnell in his closing decree for Mater Dolorosa (which has since vanished from the Diocesan web site), and the affidavit of the Holyoke building inspector in response. And don't forget, according to the recent readings:
"Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her."
Diocese of Springfield
Inasmuch as the Diocese of Springfield has undertaken a lengthy pastoral planning process to endure fair and equitable access to the sacraments for all Catholics in Western Massachusetts, and
Inasmuch as a professional and pastoral evaluation of each church community which included listening sessions with clergy and parish representatives in each of the ten regions of the diocese has been undertaken, and
Inasmuch as the pastoral planning process for the Diocese of Springfield has indicated the need for the reconfiguration of parishes, and in particular instances the reduction in the number of parishes for particular region, and
Inasmuch as the clergy and representatives of the parishes below noted have participated in the consultative process structured by the Pastoral Planning Committee, which has resulted in recommending the canonical action herein indicated, and
- An independent third-party engineer's report dated March 14, 2011 of the bell tower of Mater Dolorosa Church states that "it is only a matter of time before there is either a partial or complete failure of the wood framed steeple structure." (Supplement A to the Structural Conditions Assessment Report of the Mater Dolorosa Parish Church prepared by Engineering Design Associates, Inc., March 14, 2011, page 7.) This report is incorporated into the minutes of the Presbyteral Council by reference.
- The Assessment also states that "even a partial collapse [of the steeple] would not only jeopardize the occupants and their immediate surroundings, but could possible cause a "domino" effect threatening a much larger area of the church." (Ibid.)
- The Building Inspector for the City of Holyoke, after his own inspection and having read the Assessment, is in agreement with the Assessment and the danger to both occupants and passersby and directed that the steeple be taken down before next autumn at the latest, because of the high winds associated with that time of year.
- The Building Inspector has ordered an immediate effort to secure slates on the roof that appear to him to be dangerously loose.
- The Building Inspector has also ordered that while the roofer is on the roof he evaluate the condition of the roof and immediately make whatever repairs are called for to prevent falling slate tiles.
- The Parish of Mater Dolorosa has a current debt to the diocese of some $716,000, and is not financially able to pay for the repairs to the steeple nor is it able to cover other expenses such as repairing/replacing slate roof tiles.
- As a matter of public safety both the parking lot and the sidewalk need to be repaired representing additional costs that also cannot be covered by the parish.
- The Pastoral Planning Committee Report calls for the merging of Mater Dolorosa Parish with Holy Cross Parish (Report and Recommendations of the Pastoral Planning Committee, page 34), due to demographic and financial matters as well as that of deployment of available clergy.
- Both pastors have been working assiduously since 2009 to effect a smooth transition in line with the Pastoral Planning Committee's recommendation published in August of 2009 calling for the merger of the two parishes in the fall of this year (Ibid.), the sum of which, in my judgment, amounts to grave cause, and
Having listened to the advice of the Presbyteral Council on April 5, 2011, and
Having heard the pastors of Mater Dolorosa and Holy Cross Parishes who are in agreement with this action, and
Having determined that the good of souls will not suffer harm as a consequence of this action, and
Having previously merged the Parishes of Mater Dolorosa and Holy Cross by decree of April 7, 2011 in conformity with Canon 515.2 which becomes effective on July 1, 2011;
I now, by this decree, in keeping with Canon 1222.2, and for the grave cause shown above, herby close the Church of Mater Dolorosa to worship and relegate it hereby to profane but not sordid use effective July 1, 2011.
Given in Springfield this seventh day of April, 2011
(signed) Most Reverend Timothy A. McDonnell, Bishop of Springfield
I, Paul Healy, on oath, depose and say that:
1. I am Paul Healy presently employed as a building commissioner in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
2. During the first part of 2011, I served as Building Commissioner (Inspector) for the City of Holyoke, Massachusetts.
3. During my time of employment during early 2011, I was called to the Mater Dolorosa Church at the corner of Lyman and Maple Street to talk about the steeple of the church. I met a person who said he was an engineer outside the church together with a maintenance person of the church. To the best of my recollection, I was the only Holyoke Building Inspector called to the site. We stood on the outside sidewalk facing the church structure as we spoke.
4. The main person said he was from an engineering firm, and claimed that the steeple had issues, and he was to do a more thorough inspection later and give me a written report. I listened to him, but I never received a written report regarding the steeple from him at a later date as promised; I saw no damage to the steeple as I did not examine or inspect the premises. I am not an engineer or expert on steeples, and gave no opinion on safety or structural integrity of the steeple.
5. Again, to the best of my recollection, while standing on the sidewalk, the man who claimed to be an engineer said he was making a list and he would send me a copy of his report. No report ever came to me.
6. Any statement reading that, “The building Inspector for the City of Holyoke, after his own inspection and having read the Assessment is in agreement with the Assessment and the danger to both occupants and passerby and directed that the steeple be taken down before next autumn at the latest because of the high winds associated with that time of year,” is not true and no order, oral or written by me, to that effect was ever made.
7. Any person claiming that I made statements, in my official capacity as a Holyoke Building Inspector, regarding the safety or structural integrity of the Mater Dolorosa Steeple is not telling the truth. I responded and told the engineer that if there were immediate danger such as loose bricks or slate that they should remove those right away. This was my only interaction with the steeple issue at the church.
8. I make the foregoing statements voluntarily and without monetary or other inducement to do so; I simply want to set the public record straight as to my involvement regarding the issue of the Mater Dolorosa Steeple as I understand statements have been made by others contrary to my factual involvement regarding the aforesaid steeple.
Addendum: We here at the Western Massachusetts blog would like to add a couple footnotes: this affidavit has been entered into evidence in the court cases (civil) ongoing at in Hampden Superior Court; and, according to our sources, as of this date (November 6, 2011), there continues to be no record of any report whatsoever coming from the above-referenced diocesan-hired engineering firm nor from the diocese itself about the condition of the steeple to any of the departments of the City of Holyoke despite monitoring of the email and other communication systems of the City. We will keep you informed.