Pulling together: The Rev. William Cyr has served the Northern Berkshire Catholic community as it has changed with the times — and the challenges along the way, perhaps none as dramatic and urgent than this month, when the steeple of the unused St. Francis of Assisi Church was found to be structurally unsound and had to be immediately taken down. Cyr has been pastor in North Adams since 2005, currently of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church, the one parish into which the city's previous five were folded together. Originally from Gloucester, he was also pastor of Williamstown from 1987 to 2002, where he oversaw the joining of the St. Patrick and St. Raphael parishes. Eagle correspondent Christopher Marcisz caught up with Cyr this week.
1 How did you hear about what happened at St. Francis?
A: It was a phone call. One of our parishioners was walking by the church that Thursday morning, and he called our deacon's cellphone, who called me here at the parish to tell me what was going on. I don't recall if I called the bishop's office immediately or after Mass, but I left a message and informed him. That afternoon, he sent Bernie Hunt [a structural engineer based in Pittsfield] to assess the situation.
2 Were you surprised?
A: The prior week, on May 9, there was a meeting at the chancery office among several people, including some engineers who had looked at the foundation of the church. They found problems in a corner of the church, which was always its Achilles heel and had been in very bad shape for decades. It was so expensive the parish never had the money to repair it. At the meeting, Mr. Hunt said in his report that he predicted because of the nature of the problem that the back of the church would collapse in about a year. Four days later, it wasn't the back of the church, it was the front that began to shed bricks. It was a big surprise. The bishop called and said, "Can you believe it?" I said, "No."
3 Have you heard from parishioners who have memories of St. Francis?
A: Yes, especially that weekend. I read a letter from the bishop at the Masses, and made some comments about it. Afterwards, I would say people weren't overly surprised, but were saddened. That was the general consensus. I think as long as the church stood, there was hope that maybe something could be done with it. But as it turned out, there wasn't.
4 What did you say to them?
A: I just listened, and told them it isn't anything causing anyone great joy. As the different deals had been worked out about the sale of the property — which for one reason or another fell through — the consensus had been toward "deconstructing" the church. There wasn't much else to do.
5 Do you have any hopes for what happens to the site?
A: Not really. I don't get to say a lot about what happens or doesn't happen to it. It's in the hands of the real estate people, and they'll try to do something that will benefit the community. Ultimately, the decision ends with the bishop — by law, he is the owner.
6 Living up here, it seems a lot of what we do is managing contraction and trying to find the right size for things. Is it ever demoralizing? How do you keep your spirits up?
A: To be frank, I don't think that I think so much about managing it. Maybe I'm too superficial, I don't know, but to some extent you just go day to day and for each crisis or difficulty you try to deal with it as best you can and work with people. You try not to spring surprises on people, and this was a surprise, to me and to everyone. But to some extent you try to get people ready for the possibility of change so that when it comes along it is not quite as tension-producing as it might otherwise be.
When I came to North Adams, two of the five churches were already closed. I had to go to three of the churches to celebrate Mass, and the diocese was in the process of coming up with a master plan, which included closing two of the remaining churches because we don't have the financial resources to maintain more than one campus. It is not a wealthy community, and has a large number of people on a fixed income, who are very generous to the parish, but there are limits.
I guess I would say sometimes I do feel uptight, and then I need to call somebody and we go out for dinner and have a glass of wine and relax and don't talk about business, so to speak.
7 And I imagine it helps to focus on what you have?
Yes, the people are very loyal, and have been very good to the parish. It's a tribute to them. The people of North Adams have been through a lot, with the job losses, the drop in population. All of these things really affected people, and yet they still seem to pull together. They still love their community, they love their church. We're blessed in many ways.