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Philip Pryjma, who purchased the St. Francis Chapel for $120,000, says the 130-year-old building needs a new roof and other renovations before it can open as an art gallery.
Monday January 23, 2012

LEE -- A retired psychiatrist plans to convert a former Catholic church in South Lee into an art gallery that will, in part, benefit a pair of African nations.

Philip Pryjma of Great Barrington has purchased the Saint Francis Chapel on Route 102 for $120,000 from the Diocese of Springfield, which closed the house of worship more than five years ago.

The net proceeds of the sale will be turned over to Saint Mary's Church in Lee, as the chapel was part of Saint Mary's parish, according to diocese officials.

"We're glad Saint Francis is being put to good use," said diocese spokesman Mark DuPont. "While no longer a church, it will still provide a great resource to the community."

Pryjma, himself a painter, has a goal to provide a showplace for local artists by the summer, following some extensive repairs and renovations. He said the 130-year-old building needs a new roof, priced at $35,000, along with new plumbing and other work at undetermined costs.

However, the new owner vowed to maintain the former chapel's aesthetic character, inside and out.

"I want to make the building sound and preserve its look so it won't deteriorate," he said.

Due to a lack of priests, the diocese closed Saint Francis in September 2006. Several of the 75 to 100 church members staged a brief sit-in to protest the closure, claiming the decision came without parishioner input.

Pryjma said the yet-to-be named nonprofit gallery will be a partnership with local artists. He will give them a venue to sell their works with a portion of the proceeds to go back into the upkeep of the building.

In addition, the artists can join Pryjma in setting aside a certain percentage of the proceeds toward benefiting the people of Kenya and Ethiopia -- two countries dear to his heart.

"I traveled to Kenya three years ago and I have a grandson and granddaughter each from Ethiopia," he said.

Pryjma also collects medical and educational supplies throughout the year that are shipped to Africans in need.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.