Editorial: Easthampton parish has energy, pride

  • The Rev. Douglas McGonagle stands on scaffolding 25 feet above the sanctuary floor of Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Easthampton to highlight the major renovations underway there. The Roman Catholic church, located on Adams Street, was previously known as the Church of the Immaculate Conception. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 2/26/2017 11:26:36 PM

Catholics in Easthampton once worshipped in three separate churches, each with distinct identities linked to the ethnic heritages and traditions of its parishioners.

It was only six years ago that the city’s Polish Catholics attended Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus on Franklin Street, the descendants of French Canadians worshipped at Notre Dame du Conseil on Pleasant Street, and others — mostly of Irish, German and Italian stock — gathered at Immaculate Conception on Adams Street.

But the three churches were forced to become one under a consolidation of parishes orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. Immaculate Conception remained open, while the other two churches closed in 2010. It was a difficult transition for parishioners in Easthampton, many of whom expressed sadness and disappointment at the time. And who who could blame them?

It was in these houses of worship, located in and around the city’s downtown, where they married and mourned, baptized their children, made friends, received religious education, donated money and volunteered, and celebrated and strengthened the bonds that connect family and neighbors.

Now, the city’s Catholics are forging a new identity as Our Lady of the Valley parish and worshipping in the former Immaculate Conception church, which is 133 years old. The church was rebuilt twice after burning down in 1873 and again before a dedication planned for Easter Sunday in 1883.

Now a major renovation project is underway at the church, which has been closed since Jan. 9. Parishioners are celebrating Mass in the church basement until the project is done.

The beautification project is impressive because it is driven by parishioners as part of a multi-year fundraising effort that comes amid declining attendance at Mass, a trend the Rev. Douglas McGonagle says seems to mirror the 70 to 100 funerals at the church every year.

McGonagle said it was a former Notre Dame parishioner who suggested a year after the consolidation that the church needed a new paint job. “He said, ‘If we paint it, then it becomes Our Lady of the Valley. It won’t look so much like the old Immaculate Conception,’” McGonagle recalls.

The church’s renewal is more than just about paint. The neo-Gothic building is packed with scaffolding that that rises 25 feet above the sanctuary floor. Plans call for a brighter church interior, a new confessional, altar, revamped icons featuring the 12 apostles, Mary and Jesus, recreated paintings, restored stations of the cross and new LED lighting. The project’s cost could approach $200,000, which is no small figure for a parish that sees about 850 people fill its pews during weekend Masses.

As the church gets a new look, parish leadership has been sensitive to and respectful of the rich history and traditions that the city’s Catholics from all three parishes bring to Our Lady of the Valley. The base, top and support pillars of the church’s altar are made from the old chestnut pews at Notre Dame du Bon Conseil. The core of the altar is from the former Sacred Heart of Jesus church and the altar stone is from Immaculate Conception.

Our Lady of the Valley is a reflection of that integrated altar, and the fact that its parishioners can rally around such a significant and costly project signals the energy and growing pride of this still young parish.

Parish leaders would like to boost attendance at Mass, and there is hope that the renovated and brightened interior of Our Lady of the Valley will spark renewed interest in this church with a storied history.

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