Emergency demolition set for St. Francis as its steeple crumbles

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Photo Gallery | St. Francis Church Steeple to be demolished

Related | Evacuations surprise visitors, residents of North Adams

Video | Crews begin to prep the area for the demolition of the structurally unstable steeple of the former St. Francis Church in North Adams on Sunday

Video | Sections of Eagle, North Church and Center Streets were closed Saturday night due to structural deficiency of the St. Francis church steeple.

NORTH ADAMS — The historic St. Francis of Assisi Church is set to be demolished after its steeple partially collapsed last week, the Diocese of Springfield announced Sunday.

When pieces of the 1863 structure were discovered on sidewalks and in the street nearby on Thursday, the Diocese quickly had engineers perform an emergency inspection that concluded "the only recourse is demolition."

"[An engineer's] inspection found serious structural issues with the steeple. Additionally, the buttresses show signs of failing which would compromise the lateral support for the walls of the church," the Diocese wrote in a statement released Sunday morning. The Diocese will pay for its demolition, which could begin as early as Monday.

The Diocese has known of issues at St. Francis since at least 2007, when an engineering study showed the church required repairs to the slate roof and steeple, according to North Adams Transcript articles published at the time. The cost of the repairs was estimated to be in excess of $1 million then and played a role in the church's eventual closure in 2008.

"It certainly was one of the factors when we decided North Adams could only support one catholic community," said Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the Diocese. "We monitored the roof and the steeple [since then] just to make sure they didn't get to this point, but unfortunately they did."

The steeple, a hallmark of the city's iconic skyline standing at 168 feet tall, will be demolished "immediately." The remainder of the church building will also come down. No specific timeline has been given by either the Diocese or city officials, though a crane was set up next to the building on Sunday and Dupont said the demolition process could take several days.

"It's a tight spot to work. There's high risks involved. We don't want to cause more damage in the process of demolition," Dupont said. "They will move as quickly but as safely as possible."

In the meantime, North Church Street and the section of Eagle Street between Main and Union are closed indefinitely. Saturday evening, city officials had nearby apartments and businesses evacuated as a precaution.

Village Pizza - located within the danger zone on Eagle Street - was forced to shut its operation down overnight Saturday night, hours ahead of its normal 3 a.m. Sunday closing time. It is unclear when the restaurant would be allowed to reopen, according to Mayor Richard Alcombright.

The flatiron building on the corner of North Church Street and Eagle Street was also evacuated, and it's not clear how many residents live there.

"The Diocese has been incredibly responsive," Alcombright said. "We told them Thursday [and] within a few hours they had people here to assess. They had people in the building in the steeple, and they met on Friday some and today some and here we are."

The Diocese constructed fencing around the perimeter of the church property at the intersection of Union and Eagle streets, which employees of Village Pizza said they had initially believed was to protect the church from vandalism.

The oldest Roman Catholic church in the city, its cornerstone was set on Oct. 29, 1867, and it was dedicated on July 18, 1869. St. Francis was closed by the Diocese in 2008 in a sweeping consolidation of several Northern Berkshire churches, and its former parishioners now attend St. Elizabeth of Hungary in North Adams. Dupont said the Diocese did its "absolute best" to find a workable reuse or redevelopment of the church since 2009, and had a real estate consultant work on a "number of different plans" that never came to fruition.

Local residents fought to save the historic church in 2014 after reports surfaced that CVS Pharmacies had expressed interest in buying the lot from the Diocese and building a pharmacy in its place. An online petition opposing the church's demolition garnered about 2,000 signatures, and CVS eventually canceled its plans to buy the church.

In the meantime, the steeple has continued to decay.

Dupont said the Diocese and local parish had hoped to sell the church as quickly as possible after it closed, noting that the city of North Adams was able to purchase the former Notre Dame church with grant money following its closure.

Alcombright recognized that the news the church will be razed will anger and sadden people.

"I've stood in front of this thing for quite a while because of its historical significance, but at this time people and property trumps it all," Alcombright said.


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