News rarely happens, and travels slowly in the Springfield Diocese. Nevertheless, it happens from time to time. An upcoming court date is important enough to write about. Among other reasons, the Mater Dolorosa church's historic designation by the city of Holyoke is by no means certain. The Our Lady of Hope ruling may tip the balance of that decision.

On May 8th at 9:30 in Boston a judge will hear Bishop McDonnell’s appeal from the decision of district court judge Michael Posnor to allow the former Our Lady of Hope church in Springfield to become a historic building and thus protected from those who might want to knock it down – like Bishop McDonnell.

The church has great sentimental value to generations of Irish immigrants and their children raised in the ‘Hungry Hill’ section of town. It’s also the best example of church architect John Donohue, who built throughout New England. This structure is in the Italian Renaissance style.

As previously noted in this blog, the bishop asserts that the denial of his lawsuit ‘…concerns matters of fundamental constitutional importance regarding the rights to Freedom of Speech and Free Exercise of Religion under the U.S. and Massachusetts Constitutions…’.

In fact, the lawsuit is about the land under the church. In one word: money. To say that things have not gone the bishop’s way is a severe understatement. His attorneys got clobbered in the original case, which we reported on when it was underway in 2010. 

The history of the effort to save Our Lady of Hope church goes back some time, to the assessment by Pioneer Valley Planning Authority staff member Bonnie Parsons in 2001. Parsons included the church in a report to the City of Springfield. She found that it met the requirements for a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

The bishop’s initial complaint against the decision of the city council, who ratified the request of the historical commision for protection, was filed on Feb. 5, 2010. It took a year for the case to be decided, and on Jan. 2, 2011, a Memorandum and Order was filed by Judge Ponsor denying the request of the diocese for a summary judgment that would wipe the historic designation away.

Ever since, church lawyer John Egan has been working to undermine the Order. An appeal was filed on Jan. 28, 2011. One good result of the final order has been that OLOH church still stands, unlike St. Ann’s, a beautiful church across the river that was put ‘out of service’ as the diocese likes to say (p. 15 of appeal) a few years back. It was soon bulldozed.

St. Joseph’s church, another historic gem in Springfield, suffered a similar fate. That event was a proximate cause of the effort to save OLOH; references to the loss appear in court papers. Residents urged politicians and historic preservation officials to help save OLOH, displeasing the bishop greatly. Even before the building was declared officially historic, diocesan lawyers went into action. They popped up at hearings of the historic commission with dire warnings that supporters should cease and desist…or else. Give them credit; they may be bullies, but at least they’re consistent bullies - they follow through on their threats. After the resounding defeat (out of 12 charges, the judge threw 4 out as unripe and decided the other 8 for the city), and the appeal, the case seemed to go into limbo, pardon the expression. The parties were ordered to negotiate pending a hearing for the appeal. Ever since, the parties have filed either a delay, schedules to put briefing in abeyance, or a joint status report on 10 occasions throughout 2011 and 2012 leading to some speculation about what was causing the hold up. Now that the replies to the appeal have been published, we know the cause. The cause of the hold up is John Egan, lead counsel for the bishop. Mr. Egan is still squawking back at square one, asserting that the judge somehow it all wrong. Will the appeal judge agree? It seems unlikely.

For one thing, there's the small matter of the hundreds of historic districts throughout the commonwealth which already contain churches as a matter of settled law. Egan can only win if he convinces the judge that somehow this case is different: that the city and its historic commission have ganged up on the Diocese of Springfield, and abused state power by declaring a church a historic property. Yet, the church IS a historic property. And, if the historic commission cannot declare a building historic in Springfield, all the other historic districts will be thrown into chaos. It's not likely that an appeal judge will find this a logical argument, let alone a compelling one. Yet, it is the linchpin of Egan's complaint.  

The sad things are three in number: 1. for the last two years, church members have been forced to pay for McDonnell's and Egan's misguided attempt to flout the laws of the commonwealth; Egan has literally made a federal case out of this, and the amount of lawyer's time, talent and treasure expended cannot be small 2. this effort turns church autonomy on its head by investing the bishop and his lawyers with the rights that should belong to the membership of the church. The consent of the governed is what really creates church claims to a reasonable amount of autonomy, but you would never know that from the way that the bishop chooses to run the show, and 3. even though the members are forced to pay for litigation without having any say, they are nevertheless stonewalled about how much this whole effort costs.

There has never been a transparent lawyer’s bill submitted to the bishop and published online or in any other way, and it is unlikely that there will ever will be one published, as long as the current bishop and lead attorney are in charge.

A look at the city defense is rewarding, and the link is here:

It’s all laid out very nicely.

It seems impossible that the judge on May 8 will do anything but throw this appeal out. Yet, the law can hold surprises for all of us, so stay tuned.