Neighbors nervous about church plans

November 2, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH


Gazette Photo by John RuchA niche above the front door of the former St. Andrew’s Church was empty last week after workers removed a statue, apparently depicting St. Andrew.

FOREST HILLS—As workers in unmarked vans—presumably from the Boston Catholic archdiocese—began removing religious artworks from the former St. Andrew the Apostle Church in recent weeks, neighbors told the Gazette that they’re growing nervous about the plans of the still-unnamed developers.

Residents, including local historian Richard Heath and a sculpture instructor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, said the historic church buildings should be preserved and complained about the secrecy of the developer selection.

Preservation discussion so far has been led by former parishioner Maryetta Dussourd, the mother of victims of child-molesting priest John Geoghan, who served at St. Andrew’s in the 1970s and ’80s. Dussourd is trying to get the complex named an official landmark, and hopes to see some type of memorial to victims of priest sexual abuse established there.

Gazette interviews suggest the memorial idea may be in for a mixed reception in the neighborhood around the complex at the intersection of Walk Hill and Wachusett streets.

In any case, there will likely be significant public input into the eventual redevelopment of the 3.1-acre site, which the cash-strapped archdiocese is selling off. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) would review any large-scaled redevelopment and hold public meetings and hearings. The site also abuts the city’s Parkman Playground, which may trigger Boston Parks Commission review, depending on the size of the plan.

Dussourd is collecting signatures on a landmarking petition she intends to submit to the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC). That could trigger BLC hearings, design review and potentially historic landmark status, which makes city permission necessary for any demolition or exterior alteration. Dussourd said this week that residents interested in her petition can contact her at gracefulmango@aol.com.

Besides such large-scale concerns, small details of the church complex have an uncertain future. For example, a neighborhood secret is the unofficial entrance to the adjacent Forest Hills Cemetery cut into the fence at the back of the church parking lot. It is unclear if that kind of access will remain.

Disappearing art

Ted Southwick, a MassArt instructor and sculptor who lives on Rodman Street, long admired the stone statues and carvings on and around St. Andrew’s. He also feared for their future as redevelopment loomed, and took photos of them all.

Southwick’s fears came true several weeks ago, when workers showed up with a crane and plucked off statues, including an apparent St. Andrew image over the church’s front door and a lawn statue of Mary standing atop a defeated serpent.

More artwork came down Oct. 13 at the hands of workers in “big white vans with no words on them,” Southwick said. When he asked a worker where the artwork was going, the response, Southwick said, was, “‘I don’t know.’”

The empty niches and plywood coverings remind Southwick of the former Methodist church just down the street at Wachusett and Patten, where a controversial condo conversion a few years ago struck some residents as destructive. Among the items trashed was an old church organ—literally trashed, as Southwick found its unusual wooden pipes in a dumpster.

“I now feel very concerned about what’s happening to another church literally a stone’s throw away,” Southwick said.

The archdiocese did not return a Gazette phone call about the fate of the St. Andrew’s artwork. However, officials have previously said the policy is to remove any religious artwork that is considered sacred and make it available to other churches.

For example, major stained glass windows from the former Blessed Sacrament Church in Hyde Square recently went to a Weymouth church that had been destroyed by fire.

On the other hand, the archdiocese has sometimes destroyed artwork. In 2005, the Boston Globe reported that archdiocese workers jackhammered apart a statue of Jesus at a former North Shore church because it was damaged and could not be moved, shocking former parishioners. There is no indication that has happened at St. Andrew’s.

As of last week, St. Andrew’s main stained glass windows were still in place. Also still remaining was the large bell on the front lawn, which presumably came from a steeple that was removed decades ago.

“I’m waiting for that to disappear,” Southwick said.

Another odd item still in place is a time capsule buried next to the bell and dedicated Oct. 14, 2001. It is unclear exactly who buried the capsule, though the St. Andrew’s School was still functioning at the time.

A plaque on the site reads, “Buried here are the treasures of our parish to be opened in 50 years and celebrated by generations of the future.”

The missing statuary is part of the church’s significance as a place of worship and ceremony, where families held christenings, weddings and funerals alike.

“I see a lot of old-timers in the neighborhood looking wistfully at the church,” said Walk Hill resident Joan Serra Hoffman, who supports the complex’s preservation and Dussourd’s landmarking effort.

“I’d like to hear more from original church members” about ideas on the complex’s fate, said Richard Heath, a Bourne Street resident whose research laid the groundwork for the establishment of the nearby Woodbourne Historic District.

For those who did not attend the church, which closed in 2000, the five-building complex still has aesthetic appeal—especially the 1921 stone church.

“It would be a pity to see it torn down,” said Serra Hoffman. “While it may not be an architecturally magnificent church, it is a beautiful church.”

“I see no reason to tear down a brick,” said Heath, who believes affordable rental housing and market-rate condos could be built partly within the existing buildings.

While demolition of the church would be a “terrible loss,” Heath said, “I don’t think it’s worth landmark designation. It’s a nice building. I don’t think it’s exceptional.”

“You’d want to see it preserved in at least structural form,” said local City Councilor John Tobin, adding that any redevelopment must show “some level of sensitivity” to former parishioners. He said the Blessed Sacrament redevelopment, now under way, is a good model.

Sex abuse memorial

But the backdrop for all of these discussions is a dark and ugly side of the complex’s history. Dussourd’s family complaints about Geoghan’s crimes at St. Andrew’s were crucial to the 2001 triggering of the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis, which revealed a history of cover-ups and hundreds of crimes.

Fearful that alteration of the site will help erase memories, Dussourd wants the complex preserved and hopes to see some sort of memorial. Her ideas are vague, ranging from a monument to a museum. The idea has garnered international support from victims’ advocates, including well-known attorney Mitchell Garabedian. So far, it has been driving the preservation discussion.

Southwick, who has studied memorials professionally, said he supports the memorial idea and is intrigued by its artistic challenge. He was particularly interested in a previous Gazette report about the world’s first priest abuse memorial in New Jersey, dramatically shaped like the proverbial millstone around one’s neck.

Southwick noted the “irony” of discussing a new memorial there as the old statues are removed. But, he added, it shows how monuments fit into the fabric of Catholic Church sites.

“Rome is basically a museum of sculpture,” Southwick said, referring to the Roman Catholic Church’s headquarters there in the independent Vatican City. “That’s how [the Church] reinforced their power, by statues.”

“It has to be somehow symbolically represented,” he said of the local sexual abuse crisis. “I don’t know how. The memory of it should not go away, just like the Holocaust.

“There’s so much out there that wants to negate it and be rid of it,” he said. “These [advocates] need some hardcore funding and encouragement to keep on.”

At the same time, Southwick said, he wonders whether some victims might find it too painful to have the monument at the former church site. He suggested Forest Hills Cemetery or the historic cemetery at Walk Hill and Hyde Park Avenue could be alternative sites.

Heath, on the other hand, said an alternative site should be mandatory.

“For 75 years, this church served the parishioners of Forest Hills, and I see no reason whatsoever it has to be remembered for six sordid years of those 75,” he said, referring to Geoghan’s time there.

“I don’t want the events to be forgotten,” Heath said, calling Geoghan’s crimes “absolute darkness.” But, he added, it should not come at St. Andrew’s expense. He suggested that if there is a memorial, a main archdiocese property might be more suitable.

Dussourd, who is still a Jamaica Plain resident, has begun asking city councilors for their political support for a memorial and the landmarking. Official landmark status would eventually need City Council approval.

Dussourd was scheduled to meet with Tobin earlier this week. Like other councilors the Gazette interviewed, he was cautious on the subject, noting that his door is open to anyone.

But, he added, he is familiar with the sexual abuse crisis, especially from his time working at West Roxbury’s Catholic Memorial High School, where children also were abused.

“It was a widespread thing,” Tobin said. “I know some of those guys [from the school] who say they were abused and some who were proven [to be] abused. It’s something they live with and their families live with. It’s a horrible time in the Church that hopefully has been taken care of.

“I feel pretty strongly about it, too. I think Cardinal [Bernard] Law got off pretty easily, to tell you the truth,” said Tobin, referring to the former Boston archbishop who resigned following exposure of his covering up the crimes of Geoghan and others. “It’s unfathomable to me and to a lot of people how this could go on unchecked.”

Aside from such big issues, there are small details to the site that may spark future discussion. For example, the front lawn contains several good-sized trees, and tree preservation in redevelopment is a big JP issue.

Then there’s the unofficial cemetery entrance created by someone cutting iron bars out of the mutual fence. The opening has been there for at least several years. It is also well-established. On a recent Gazette visit, the opening was posted with a sign about a community Halloween party and included a jug containing what appeared to be communal plastic bags for cleaning up after dogs.

The complex, which now blurs into the cemetery and Parkman Playground, is widely used by kids and dog-walkers.

“We’re all worried what’s going to happen to our dogs,” Serra Hoffman said with a laugh.

The Gazette spoke with a resident and professional dog-walker who was using the fence hole to access the cemetery. “If they turn it into condos or something, I would hope they donate part of the land to the park,” said the resident, who wished to remain anonymous. There at least should be “some sort of agreement with the public” on maintaining public access through the area, he said.

The parking lot area is chained off to vehicles and posted with fresh-looking “no trespassing” signs, though it is unclear whether they refer to the parking lot and fence opening area or to the main church complex.

Transparency

While there may be different opinions about the fate of the complex, there is no dispute that the neighborhood is starved for information about it.

“The archdiocese is showing its usual bad manners in not saying who the development teams are,” Heath said. “That would make it easier for us in Forest Hills and Jamaica Plain to decide or judge or comment on what’s taking place there.”

“The secrecy is a little concerning,” said Serra Hoffman, adding that the neighborhood would benefit from “transparency” about development plans.

While the developer is unnamed, the adjacent Young Achievers Science and Mathematics School reportedly had early discussions about moving into part of the redevelopment. The developer is reportedly in the “due diligence” phase of proving to the archdiocese that it has the financial backing and intentions to pull off the redevelopment.

The developer’s plans are also unknown. However, the archdiocese has said it prefers reuses that somehow reflect the Church’s missions, such as low-income housing, social services or another church.