Northampton City Council to vote on $500K for ‘iconic’ St. John Cantius Church

  • Photos of St. John Cantius Church in Northampton, submitted to city officials by consultant Mark Thaler of Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson Architecture & Preservation, based in Albany, N.Y., as part of a July 2022 historic structures report. Thaler conducted a site inspection on June 23 at the request of the owner, O’Connell Development Group Inc. SCREENSHOTS

  • Photos of St. John Cantius Church in Northampton, submitted to city officials by consultant Mark Thaler of Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson Architecture & Preservation, based in Albany, N.Y., as part of a July 2022 historic structures report. Thaler conducted a site inspection on June 23 at the request of the owner, O’Connell Development Group Inc. SCREENSHOTS

  • Photos of St. John Cantius Church in Northampton, submitted to city officials by consultant Mark Thaler of Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson Architecture & Preservation, based in Albany, N.Y., as part of a July 2022 historic structures report. Thaler conducted a site inspection on June 23 at the request of the owner, O’Connell Development Group Inc. SCREENSHOTS

  • A hawk got trapped in the bell tower of St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street on June 22, 2022, leading to an hour-long operation by members of Northampton Fire Rescue, bird of prey expert Tom Ricardi and city resident Hobie Iselin to free it. Two other hawks spent the entire time circling around the tower and perched on the cross. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • St. John Cantius Church on Hawley Street in Northampton needs exterior work to prevent water infiltration. At left are the Hawley Manor townhouses, under construction on the site of the church’s former rectory and parish hall. FILE PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/27/2022 7:01:57 AM
Modified: 8/27/2022 6:58:16 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council will consider a $500,000 request to fix up the exterior of St. John Cantius Church next week in anticipation of a Holyoke developer turning the structure at 10 Hawley St. into multifamily housing.

The Community Preservation Committee unanimously recommended the spending, which would come from the city’s Community Preservation Act funds, during its Wednesday night meeting.

The funding request from O’Connell Development Group Inc. also earned the blessing of the Historical Commission on Aug. 8. A City Council vote is the final step in the allocation process.

Matthew Welter, vice president of development at O’Connell, told the Historical Commission that the money is intended to seal the vacant building’s masonry envelope to stop the infiltration of water.

Sarah LaValley, the city’s community preservation planner, said the money is “not tied to any specific use” of the building, and the developer could still change its mind about what to do with it. But the funding does come with the condition that O’Connell works with the Massachusetts Historical Commission to craft a historic preservation restriction on the building, which would require any future work to get the Northampton commission’s approval. St. John Cantius church was built more than a century ago.

“They indicated that they wanted to do rental housing. Should that change, and they want to do something different on the inside, that’s fine,” LaValley told the Gazette.

She said she had submitted the request for consideration at the City Council’s virtual meeting on Sept. 1 at 7 p.m., “the soonest meeting” after the Community Preservation Committee’s vote.

City Council President James Nash confirmed on Friday that the item will appear on the next meeting’s agenda.

“It is a financial order and council rules require two readings,” Nash said. “First reading, the introduction of the order, will happen on the first. … council will then decide the path toward second reading, where we consider approval at a future meeting. We may want to seek further public input through our finance committee.”

Nash said it is possible, “if council is satisfied with the introduction,” that the item could appear on the following meeting’s consent agenda, a package of items that are generally voted up or down at once.

‘Closed and desanctified’

O’Connell hired a preservation consultant — Lacey Thaler Reilly Wilson Architecture & Preservation, based in Albany, N.Y. — to write a historic structures report, which was submitted to city officials last month. Consultant Mark Thaler conducted a site inspection on June 23.

“The Polish community who migrated to Northampton in the late 19th century expanded from 75 families in 1898 to about 500 families in 1902,” the report reads. “Recognizing the needs of this fast growing community, a Parish was organized in 1904 and services were initially held in the basement of St. Mary’s Church and were later on moved to Lyman Hall on Center Street.

“The parcel for this new church building was bought in 1908 and construction began in August 1911 and the church was dedicated in April 1913,” the report reads. “The St. John Cantius Parish was merged with Sacred Heart Parish in April 2010 after which time the church was closed and desanctified.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield sold the building to O’Connell in 2020 for $1.6 million.

O’Connell is in the process of constructing townhomes on the next-door site of the church’s former rectory and parish hall. When the developer first proposed work at St. John Cantius, the goal was to knock down the structure and build five townhomes on the site.

The group Friends of St. John Cantius organized against the demolition proposal. Elaine Jandu, a vocal advocate for reusing the structure, lauded the CPA plan on Friday.

“It does need repair, but it’s amazing how the age of the building hasn’t affected the inside of it,” Jandu said. “I was very pleased when the Historical Commission … and the CPC voted unanimously in support of CPA funding, so now we have one more hurdle, the City Council.”

The public wrote “so many letters of support” to save the building and allocate the $500,000, Jandu said, calling the outpouring “unbelievable.”

“It’s a landmark. It’s the streetscape of downtown Northampton,” Jandu said. “It’s history, not only for the Polish immigrants, but it’s a monument.”

Arnold Levinson lives on Hancock Street, not far from the church. Like Jandu, he’s a booster of preservation and has spoken about the issue on a local radio program.

“We’ve lived here for 27 years and I’ve been looking at that building — I can remember when it was an active church,” Levinson said on Friday. “I can remember the bell ringing on Sundays for Mass. It’s one of the most iconic buildings in Northampton.”

Demolition would be “a real shame,” he said, and supporters of the CPA request are preparing for a final push to get it across the finish line.

“The public is involved, even if they’re not going inside,” Levinson said, describing the church as a beautiful cultural resource shared by all. “It’s a part of everyone’s life here in Northampton and has been since” its construction.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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