A structure worth saving?: Review continues Tuesday on request to demolish Northampton church

  • A page from a presentation O’Connell Development Group submitted to the city about St. John Cantius Church shows some of the deterioration inside and outside the building. SCREENSHOT

  • Some of O’Connell Development Group’s plans submitted to the city for the redevelopment of the former St. John Cantius Church property. SCREENSHOT

  • The O’Connell Development Group has applied for a permit to demolish the former St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street and Phillips Place in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/5/2021 8:36:17 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Nearly 500 people have signed a petition to prevent the demolition of the former St. John Cantius church on Hawley Street.

“Demolishing St. John’s Cantius Church would take a magnificent piece of historical architecture away from Northampton,” the petition on Change.org reads.

The building’s fate may be decided at a Central Business Architecture Committee (CBAC) on Tuesday night when the committee will continue its hearing from February on the possible demolition of the building. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.

“Demolition is a difficult decision to weigh for structures of this stature in the community,” said Carolyn Misch, the city’s assistant director of planning and sustainability who also staffs the committee.

St. John Cantius was organized for Polish-speaking Catholics in 1904 and has been vacant since 2010.

A decade ago, St. John Cantius and four other churches in Northampton were consolidated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield to form St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish. After the church had been vacant for a decade, the diocese sold the church last year for $1.26 million to O’Connell Hawley LLC, which is managed by the O’Connell Development Group of Holyoke.

O’Connell submitted an application in early February for work on the property that includes the demolition of the old church.

In deciding whether to grant the demolition request, Misch said there are three criteria the committee considers.

“The first question is, have all viable reuses, all reasonable alternatives, been fully considered? The second would be the building is either unstable, (or) functionally or structurally obsolete,” she said. “The third is that the new building has been designed to replace the building that has been demolished.”

Jim Nash — the city councilor for Ward 3, the area the building is in — said he signed the petition.

“The broader community is very concerned about this church,” Nash said. “I had one neighbor out knocking on doors to make sure people knew about the petition.”

O’Connell did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday, though the company recently submitted a 32-page presentation and updated plans to the city. The presentation includes a number of photos of deterioration, like missing roof shingles, rotting trim on the exterior, moisture stains, paint peeling, plaster falling off the walls, and mold on the basement ceiling.

“The building has extensive signs of deferred maintenance, after laying dormant and unheated for a large part of that period,” the presentation states, referring to the decade the building was vacant. It also addresses alternative uses and notes that with COVID-19, other uses of the space “became financially unviable.”

“Boston-based restaurant/hospitality group proposed a multi-use venue, with outdoor music and outdoor dining, but the lingering uncertainty over the long-term effect on consumer spending habits caused them to withdraw,” it states.

‘Set a high bar’

Elaine Moggio Jandu started the petition to repurpose the church. The Ward 3 resident and architecture enthusiast goes on daily walks.

“I go by there when I walk, and it kills me to think they are thinking of taking this structure down … the building itself is just so gorgeous,” she said.

Deb Henson, president of the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association, also signed the petition and said people don’t want the church torn down.

“Many people have their own religious or spiritual connection to it. Some of us have the love of historic buildings,” Henson said, adding that repurposing the building “seems like something that needs to be explored more.”

Councilor Nash said it would be a “huge loss” to demolish the building and has only heard from a few people in support of demolition.

“I think, architecturally, other than the grandstands at the fairgrounds, it’s the most … remarkable piece of architecture on this side of the railroad tracks,” he said. “I completely get that repurposing is very difficult but we just need to set a high bar as we go through this process.”

One neighbor wrote to the city supporting the demolition. “New housing and new neighbors will certainly be an improvement over abandoned, decaying, and neglected properties,” wrote resident H. Leslie Wolfe in an April 4 letter.

The city’s Historical Commission wrote a letter stating that the Central Business Architecture Committee’s guidelines don’t necessarily take historic value into account in a demolition application, though the commission has a responsibility to inform the CBAC and the developer of a property’s historical significance.

“This property is both an architectural landmark and century-old social gathering spot for Northampton’s Polish immigrant community,” Martha Lyon, chair of the Historical Commission wrote on behalf of the group. “It is not only significant to Northampton’s architectural history, but also has served as a symbol of the city’s ethnic heritage.”

The letter “urges the CBAC to consider this architectural and historical significance” in its review.

Information about how to access Tuesday evening’s meeting can be found on the meeting agenda posted on the city’s calendar online at www.northamptonma.gov/calendar.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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