Ruling expected on Mass. church protest


By Father Bill Pomerleau

Catholic News Service

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — A Superior Court judge took under advisement a request by the Diocese of Springfield to evict protesters from a former Catholic church in Holyoke, but hinted that he had enough information to make a ruling soon.

“I have read all the materials submitted to me, including the reports by experts,” said Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder, who asked few questions during an hour-long hearing in a courtroom full of spectators.

“I do find that the danger is not so great that I need to rule now,” said Judge Kinder, who is considering whether to grant the diocese a preliminary injunction against a group of parishioners who have been occupying the church since its closure June 30.

If granted, the injunction could lead to police action if the protesters refuse to leave what was Mater Dolorosa Church. The “vigilers,” as they call themselves, have ignored two no-trespassing notices issued to them by the diocese during the summer.

In 2009, the diocese announced Mater Dolorosa Parish would merge with Holy Cross Parish within two years to form a new parish. This past July, the diocese decided Holy Cross Church would be the worship site for the new Parish of Our Lady of the Cross, not Mater Dolorosa, because of concerns about its structural integrity and other issues.

Attorney John J. Egan, the diocese’s principal attorney, told the court that the only issues to be determined are whether a civil court has the power to rule on certain matters involving churches, whether the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, the legal name of the diocese, is the owner of the church, and whether he has the power to secure his property as he sees fit.

Egan said that he had attached a 1901 deed to his memorandum of law submitted to the court before the hearing, showing that the diocese owned the Holyoke property. He also alluded to a number of trespassing cases in state and federal courts upholding the right of owners to address various kinds of encroachments on their properties.

He particularly cited Fortin vs. Roman Catholic Bishop of Worcester, a 1994 Supreme Judicial Court case that led to the eviction of protesters who were occupying the then-closed St. Joseph Church in Worcester.

Egan argued that while the diocese had tolerated the occupation of Mater Dolorosa during the summer months, it was now concerned that failure to repair its steeple could endanger the occupiers and the public.

The decision to merge Holyoke’s Mater Dolorosa Parish, a Polish ethnic parish, with nearby Holy Cross Parish was part of a diocesan-wide pastoral planning process under way for more than seven years.

Earlier this year, as the date for the planned merger drew closer, the diocese ordered an evaluation of the physical condition of its buildings in that city to make a final determination on the designated site for worship for the new parish community.

That evaluation raised unexpected concerns about the condition of Mater Dolorosa’s century-old wooden steeple, and other issues. A subsequent engineering study estimated that it would cost $250,000 to $350,000 to repair the steeple. A second study estimated the repair at $112,000.

The state of the Mater Dolorosa building, along with its mounting debt and other reasons, was cited by Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell when he decided to use the former Holy Cross Church as the site for the newly merged parish.

Among the factors cited for closing Mater Dolorosa was a 20 percent decline in weekly participation and the lowest baptism to funeral ratio in the city of Holyoke.

Egan said the diocese is concerned that with the onset of winter, the danger of a steeple collapse grows, and that repair crews are unwilling to remove the steeple while persons are occupying the buildings.

Attorney Peter Stasz, who also is one of those organizing the protest movement, known as Friends of Mater Dolorosa, said that the real issue before the court was not trespassing, but the state of the steeple. He cited an engineering report commissioned by his group that claimed that the steeple could be repaired for as low as $1,000.

Victor Anop, another attorney who leads the group, noted that he was in the church during the July 26 microburst windstorm that damaged nearby buildings in Holyoke, and, he said, the church was unharmed.

Anop accused Bishop McDonnell of being “disingenuous” in saying that the diocese needed the protesters out of Mater Dolorosa so it can remove the steeple for safety reasons.

“They had their report in May. Either the bishop was reckless in keeping the church open for weeks up until the closing Mass on June 30, or he knew that the church isn’t really unsafe.”

But Mark Dupont, spokesman for the diocese, took exception to that characterization. “I was present when Bishop (McDonnell) received the initial engineering report last spring and he specifically asked whether there was imminent danger. The engineers indicated it was OK for the time being but that it would have to be addressed before winter’s inclement weather.”