By John Ruch and Peter Shanley, Gazette Staff
A crowd of about 150 people and three of Boston’s mayoral candidates were among those backing the Hyde Square Task Force’s (HSTF) attempt to purchase the former Blessed Sacrament Church building at a May 3 rally in front of the 365 Centre St. church.
City Councilors and current mayoral contenders Felix Arroyo, John Connolly and Mike Ross attended the event and spoke in support, either to the crowd or in comments to the Gazette. Local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez and City Councilor Matt O’Malley spoke publicly in support, and such notable community leaders as Tony Barros did as well in comments to the Gazette.
HSTF Executive Director Claudio Martinez, wearing a sticker reading “Save the Church,” told the crowd that Blessed Sacrament was “built by highly skilled artisans for the purpose of building community…This can become the centerpiece, the cultural jewel, of the Latin Quarter.”
“The Blessed Sacrament complex is more than a Realtor’s attraction,” said Barros, echoing the overall sentiment of the rally. “Blessed Sacrament Church is an extremely symbolic icon to this community, and seeing the people actually here looks very much like the ones I saw every Sunday coming to church.”
Sally Swenson, a spokesperson for current church co-owner the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), later told the Gazette that the JPNDC is still open to other ideas.
“We hear loud and clear that many people want the church’s redevelopment to be meaningful for former parishioners and other community members, and we appreciate how much people care,” Swenson said in an email. “ JPNDC shares this concern, which is why we’ve delayed going forward with the original (and community-approved) plan to create market-rate condos in the hope that an alternative can be worked out.”
The event included a multimedia presentation that made the church appear to speak by projecting movies of the mouths of HSTF advocates above the main church doors while a recording of their Blessed Sacrament memories was played—an artistic touch created by Massachusetts College of Art and Design students.
The HSTF’s Martinez acknowledged to the Gazette that the Task Force still has no concrete plan for reusing the church beyond a general concept of a multicultural arts and community-use space for such events as quinceañeras.
“We have no fixed idea” for a reuse, he said.
But, Martinez said, the HSTF has solid funding behind its bid, though he declined to specify the exact amount of its bids.
The building’s current owners, the JPNDC and the for-profit New Atlantic Development, bought the entire former Catholic Church complex more than seven years ago to ensure community control and reduce gentrification in the heart of Jamaica Plain’s Latino community. They have since built 81 units of affordable rental and ownership housing on the block, as well as selling one building to the HSTF, a prominent local youth leadership organization. While the ornate, century-old main church was always planned to become condos, the idea became controversial last year when the JPNDC—whose leaders themselves are not fans of the high-end condo plan—failed to find alternative uses and reached a financial breaking point.
New Atlantic is now poised to buy out the JPNDC and convert the landmark church into condos costing up to $725,000. But, under internal and community pressure, the JPNDC in particular has slowed down the process and sought alternative-use bids once again. The HSTF’s Martinez told the crowd that the owners have rejected two separate HSTF offers for the church building “without reasonable explanation.” Swenson said JPNDC is still in negotiations with the HSTF.
No one from the JPNDC or New Atlantic appeared to be in attendance, while the organizations were the targets of criticism. Martinez claimed they roped off the church building that very day, with dangling signs warning of dangers of “falling masonry,” implying that the owners were discouraging the rally.
“NDC, free the church! Peter Roth, cut the rope!” went a brief chant led by Martinez, the latter part referring to New Atlantic’s president. Martinez produced a pair of scissors and appeared ready to cut the rope himself, then tossed the tool down and said Roth and JPNDC Richard Thal should leave their homes—in Cambridge, he pointedly noted—to cut it themselves. Roth in fact lives in Boston, he later told the Gazette.
Other speakers were more diplomatic about the controversy in particular between the JPNDC and the HSTF, which are two longtime allies.
“It’s good for us to have this tension,” said Sánchez to the crowd, calling for further negotiation. “Nothing here in this community has happened without a struggle.”
Councilor Arroyo, a JP resident, served on the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council at the time the original Blessed Sacrament redevelopment plan was vetted by that group. He noted to the Gazette that some form of community space was always intended as part of the church building’s future, while he also acknowledged that condos were the original plan as well.
“To me, it’s about respecting community process and listening to the community voice,” Arroyo told the Gazette. “What the Task Force is advocating now is what the community fought for.”
He later told the crowd, “We will win this because organized people have never lost in the history of this country,” adding that JP spoke about its wishes for the church complex years ago, and “Jamaica Plain has spoken again.”
Councilor Ross, who represents part of Hyde Square, also backed the HSTF’s bid, telling the Gazette, “The Hyde Square Task Force is such an important organization. We have to follow their lead on this. It’s too important to ignore.”
Councilor Connolly told the Gazette about the rally, “I think it’s great, and I fully support the Hyde Square Task Force in efforts here to keep Blessed Sacrament a vibrant part of the community, and in service to the community.” He added that it was good to see “arts front and center” in the discussion.
Sánchez and O’Malley both described personal connections to Blessed Sacrament’s long history in the local Catholic community.
“I baptized my godson here in this church,” said Sánchez, becoming emotional and momentarily tripping on his words. Emphasizing those community connections, he said the question is, “How do we make sure this place…which had so many happy times, has more happy times?”
O’Malley said his mother was a teacher at the former Blessed Sacrament school.
“Growing up, this was like a second home to me,” said O’Malley, a Roslindale native who now lives in JP. He said he backs the HSTF in “anything we can do to preserve this resource.” He also added that “the folks at JPNDC are good people” and that the rally is about a call for negotiating fairly.
Barros, a Hyde Park resident with longtime ties to JP who often advises the City on Latino issues, had three sons schooled at the former Blessed Sacrament. He told the Gazette that redevelopment should be “close to the purpose the church was created [for] back in the day.”
“I totally side with the Hyde Square Task Force and anyone who has some degree of common sense,” Barros said, adding that JPNDC should continue its long tradition of working with “old partners” to get “the best out of pieces of land in the area.” He said he has not discussed the church project with Mayor Thomas Menino.
Corrected version: This version corrects the city in which Peter Roth resides.