Bell tolls for Polish church: Demolition sought for St. John Cantius building

  • A sketch of development at the site of the former John Cantius church submitted to the city from O’Connell Development Group.  O’Connell Development Group

  • The O’Connell Development Group has applied for a permit to demolish the former St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street and Phillips Place. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left, Fred Zimnoch, Theresa Bimbane, Helen Curtin, Charlene Zagrodnik, Tessie Gibowicz and Bob Gibowicz, all long time parishioners at St. John Cantius Church stand in front of the church. The O'Connell Development Group, has applied for a permit to demolish the building on Hawley Street and Phillips Place. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Theresa Bimbane, left, Helen Curtin, Charlene Zagrodnik, Tessie Gibowicz and Bob Gibowicz, all longtime parishioners at St. John Cantius Church, gathered in front of the church Friday after learning that the O'Connell Development Group has applied for a permit to demolish the building on Hawley Street and Phillips Place. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/21/2021 9:48:56 AM

NORTHAMPTON — As a proud Polish resident, Robert Gibowicz joined St. John Cantius Church when he moved to Northampton in 1969 and stayed involved for four decades until the church closed in 2010 as part of the consolidation of the city’s Catholic churches.

“I stayed to the last service of the church,” Gibowicz said Friday.

More recently, Gibowicz and others connected the former parish learned that the Hawley Street church may be demolished to make way for townhomes.

“It is a very sad time for the Polish people in Northampton,” he said.

O’Connell Development Group, a Holyoke-based company, submitted an application in early February for work on the property that includes the demolition of the old church.

A demolition review is scheduled Monday before the Central Businesses Architecture Committee. Plans filed with the city earlier this month show five units of three-story townhomes for 10 Hawley St. Representatives from O’Connell Development Group could not be reached for comment Friday.

St. John Cantius was organized for Polish-speaking Catholics in 1904, and the building has been vacant since 2010, when it 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 was 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. Before the planned demolition, all religious artifacts will be removed from the building, according to the company’s application, which states that the “future, full design will be presented to, and discussed with, the neighbors.”

Paperwork filed with the city in 2019 showed that the group planned to build 23 townhomes on the property by redeveloping and demolishing the former rectory and former parish center. At the time of the sale, there wasn’t a plan for the vacant church, Wayne Feiden, the city’s director of planning and sustainability, said last year.

Ward 3 City Councilor Jim Nash compared the possible demolition of St. John Cantius Church to the demolition of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station.

“It would be a huge loss here in Northampton,” he said.

Around the time the church closed, the Central Businesses District was expanded to include the former church to allow for more possibilities there, Nash said.

“The idea is we’re taking this step to extend central business so something exciting could happen in the church. It’s disappointing and disheartening that we’re reaching this point where it looks like it’s going to be demolished,” he said. “It’s a striking structure.”

Nash said that in discussions with O’Connell Development Group, the company was exploring restaurants and other ideas for the church.

“My understanding is that the property owners have made good-faith efforts to try to repurpose the church, and I completely get this — to think about opening a restaurant or a theater or anything like this, this is a terrible time to find investors,” he said.

Nash sent out an email to constituents about the potential demolition on Friday morning. A few hours later, “the emails are starting to come in,” he said. “People are saddened by the news.”

Theresa Bimbane, a Florence resident and lifelong member of the church, heard about the possible demolition Friday.

“I am just very upset there was no transparency. I know the church doesn’t have any control over the property because we sold it, but I thought we would have at least been forewarned,” she said.

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