Guest columnist Deborah Henson: Save St. John Church, and ‘keep the soul that draws many’

  • St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street. Gazette file photo

Published: 6/24/2021 2:10:58 PM

Our group, the Friends of St. John Cantius, is comprised of a group of concerned Northampton citizens who are trying to save SJC church from demolition and instead see it repurposed. We are development professionals, city government officials, residents of Ward 3, members of city associations, and residents of other towns in the Valley. One aspect unites us: a love of historic buildings and a love of Northampton — and our passion to save this architectural treasure from the wrecking ball.

O’Connell Development Group, the current owner, told the group of concerned residents at a October 2019 public meeting at the (former) SJC Parish Hall, led by Ward 3 city councilor Jim Nash that he would try “diligently” to repurpose the church. I, for one, believed him.

That commitment has evaporated and O’Connell continues to seek permission to demolish this building and replace it with more luxury condos. We were appalled with the April 6 Central Business Architecture Committee members’ lukewarm analysis of this issue and total disregard of the historical significance of the building in the application before them that called for demolition. We saw clearly that without community outrage and some urgent legal strategies, this church will no longer grace 2 Hawley St., which we all believe would be a tragic occurrence for this city and the Valley as a whole.

We urged CBAC members to visit the church — they have not been inside. How could merely four individuals (others on the committee are recused due to their close association with O’Connell) make such a momentous decision about the city’s 100-year-old architectural art without seeing the church inside and out?

An anonymous donor provided us $50,000 to help with efforts to save this incredibly beautiful and historically significant building from being destroyed. We could use those funds to help the developer research this matter and market the building now that COVID is not crippling us.

At the least, we implore the members of the Central Business Architecture and Planning Board to follow the guidance of the city’s planning ordinances, which they are legally required to employ. The city’s own ordinance for Central Business and West Street Architecture provides the following as its overarching purpose: “The purpose of this chapter is to preserve and enhance the pedestrian-scale character, culture, economy and welfare of downtown Northampton by preserving historic and architecturally valuable buildings and features, and by encouraging compatible building design ...”

Additionally, the Design Guidelines Manual adopted by the city to help CBAC and Planning Board member make crucial decisions such as this one before them now also provide for preservation of “architecturally valuable buildings,” as stated above. The manual states in its initial section: “It is the primary intention of this manual to help protect and reinforce the architectural heritage, inviting character, and economic viability of the downtown.”

So, how are we now standing at the precipice of this magnificent building’s destruction?

John W. Donahue, architect of St. John Cantius , was born in Springfield in 1869. After working for a local firm, Donahue was appointed architect for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, which at the time also included the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester. In this capacity, Donahue designed over 100 churches, schools, hospitals and other buildings for Catholic clients.

Our group has no religious fervor motivating us. Instead, as Frank Lloyd Wright stated: “The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.”

We believe that this city needs to reset its priorities if demolishing an architectural gem from 1913 is shepherded through planning boards without the utmost efforts being made for historical preservation. We want Northampton to keep the soul that draws many, Polish and other, to this city to walk about and fall in love with our architectural treasures that we are so lucky to have in our midst.

COVID may be blamed for the delay in moving forward with the intention of repurposing, but COVID cannot continue to be the excuse for giving up on any attempt to actively market this building for some more months now that we are seeing light at the end of the COVID tunnel.

Please come to our rally for St. John Cantius at 33 Hawley St., on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., sponsored by us and co-sponsored by Ward 3 Neighborhood Association. We are inviting the city planners and officials, the Planning Board and CBAC members, the developer, and anyone else who wants to understand the imminent threat to this stunning building and how we can find other ways for the current owner/developer to make money and keep the church standing.

We will have current, interior photos of the beautiful ceiling painting in the nave, a slide show with architectural plans for various residential repurposing (e.g., 12 and 24-unit condos) as well as other alternatives for this space (e.g., classical music venue, restaurant/music venue, etc.). Refreshments include Polish jelly donuts and coffee on tap! Bring your ideas for the Idea Wall.

Deb Henson is the former owner of 83 Pomeroy Terrace, Northampton (The Pomeroy Inn B & B – sold recently as a COVID casualty) and the former President of Ward 3 Neighborhood Association.

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