After more than two hours of debate on Tuesday, the Holyoke, Massachusetts City Council voted against a plan to create a Polish historic district in town.
It’s a debate that’s been going on for four years -- involving passionate community members, the local Catholic Diocese, and city government. The proposal would have created a historic district that includes 21 residential and commercial properties centered around a 114-year-old church.
Mater Dolorosa Church was built and paid for by the Polish community at the turn of the century, but was closed in 2011 due to low attendance and structural issues. The Diocese of Springfield has said the aging steeple is dangerous, a claim disputed by “Friends of Mater Dolorosa,” a group trying to save the church.
Victor Anop is a lawyer and the head of "Friends of Mater Dolorosa." His grandparents immigrated from Poland and were original members of the church. "The involvement of the church was the center of Polish culture," he said.
"Regardless if the church is ever open again, we want that area preserved for the history of the generations," he said, citing 62 Polish businesses that existed in the designated area.
After the church closed in 2011, the Fairfield Avenue Local Historic District Commission was tasked with exploring the formation of a historic district in the Lyman Street neighborhood. Their report became the proposed ordinance voted on by the city council on Tuesday.
Three former mayors expressed support for the plan, along with the current Mayor Alex Morse.
But Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, said the designation could actually do harm. In a letter to the city council, he said that if passed, the designation "will not result in the re-opening of the church and will most likely hinder the parish in any future redevelopment plans for the former church."
Rozanski said that "placing the property in an historic district makes redevelopment nearly impossible, given our current economic environment."
Another church a mile away, Our Lady of the Cross Parish, has absorbed the former Mater Dolorosa parishioners, and Rozanski said it’s “working hard, successfully, to carry on much of the cultural identity” of the former parish.
Because the vote centers on a zoning ordinance, the council needed a two-thirds majority. The final tally on Tuesday was seven in favor, and eight against.
— Michael R. Plaisance (@MikeRPlaisance) April 8, 2015
Despite the rejection of the historic district designation, community members aren't giving up on their former church. "We will battle on," Anop said. He's currently waiting on a complaint filed with the Vatican high court in Rome, to re-open the church.