Demolition of St. Francis may facilitate sale of parcel

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NORTH ADAMS — As St. Francis of Assisi Church falls, its value is likely increasing.

Any potential sale of the historic church at the corner of Eagle and Union streets, owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, had previously assumed the incoming developer would either pay to demolish or need to deeply reinvest in, St. Francis.

But now that the church is being razed out of necessity, the crumbling structure is no longer an impediment to commercial development.

"What we had known from our previous marketing of our property was that the existence of the church did not add to the value [of the property]," said Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese, noting that any increase in value "sadly" comes as a result of a "loss to the community."

The diocese of Springfield ordered that the historic church, which has been vacant since it closed in 2008, be demolished following a partial collapse of its steeple. Much of the steeple was removed last week; the rest of the building soon will follow.

It remains to be seen if the potential increase in value compares the cost of demolition, for which the diocese is currently footing an unspecified bill due to the local parish's inability to pay. The proceeds from the sale will stay with the local parish, now based at St. Elizabeth of Hungary, but its leader has said at least some of the funds would go to pay off a growing debt to the diocese.

"At this point it's far, far too early to tell what will happen to the property but the main concern right now is to make sure that everything comes down so that it's not threatening to anyone," Springfield Bishop Mitchell Rozanski said while visiting the site on Friday.

Though the decision to demolish the church was made rapidly following the partial collapse last week, its structural issues were well-documented. A previous engineering study of St. Francis showed serious problems and indicated repairs would come at a price of more than $1 million — a primary reason the church was closed in 2008.

Rozanski said Friday the diocese had, on at least three occasions, attempted to sell the property but deals fell through "for one reason or another."

North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright said he does not shy away from his history of working to preserve the historic structure, including instituting a historical demolition delay ordinance when a CVS Pharmacy was proposed at the site. But Alcombright noted the power of the ordinance was limited and only could have forced the developer to delay for one year.

"It was our way of extending our views on historic preservation. It wasn't about the Catholic Church," Alcombright said.

The church, its rectory building, and the land on which they both sit had been listed through Springfield-based Colebrook Realty for $599,000 prior to the start of demolition. Including the rectory building, the listing offered a total of approximately 27,661 square feet, 35 parking spaces, and "visibility and easy access."

The listing was taken off of the Colebrook Realty website, though an "Available: Colebrook Realty" sign has since has been placed on the church's north lawn.

A sale of the lot would provide an immediate financial boon to both the diocese and the local parish, which has been paying property taxes on the church since 2010. Our Lady of Mercy church also was placed back on the tax rolls at the time, but it has since fallen under private ownership.

"The sooner it gets sold, the sooner comes when we don't have to worry," said the Rev. William F. Cyr, pastor of St. Elizabeth's.

Constructed in 1863, St. Francis was closed in 2008 by the diocese amid a period of broad consolidation of Roman Catholic churches in the Berkshires. It's been vacant since 2009 and largely stripped of any relics and religious artifacts.

Though burdensome to local parishioners, who under Catholic rules are held financially responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of their local churches, the taxation of the former church is required under state law because it was no longer actively used for religious purposes, city officials have argued.

The local parish, meanwhile, has struggled to meet its financial obligations to the diocese year after year, a problem not unique to North Adams, according to Cyr. While the exact amount owed by city parishes to the diocese was not immediately available, Cyr said "it's a sizable sum of money we're not able to pay." He estimated it to be in excess of $1 million.

Though the proceeds of any sale of the St. Francis property would return to the local parish, Cyr said the parish would make an effort to pay off some of its debt to the diocese. While Dupont confirmed the diocese does anticipate payment, he noted "that's all relative to the success of selling the land, which is still speculative."

The church was previously assessed at a value of more than $1 million — well more than the asking price on its real estate listing — but the diocese successfully petitioned the city for an abatement.

The value of the property will be adjusted after the church's demolition is complete, according to city Assessor Ross Vivori, though the parish will continue to be taxed on the rectory building and the land. The parish paid $29,445 in property taxes toward the church, $18,361 in taxes on the rectory, and $4,407 in taxes on an empty Union Street lot this year, according to assessor records.

The rectory building will not be demolished, according to the diocese, unless purchased by a developer who wishes to do so.

Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376


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