St. Francis cross, bells to remain in North Adams — as will memories of beloved church

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Video | The cross atop the steeple of St. Francis Church is removed on Monday amid windy conditions.

NORTH ADAMS — Though St. Francis of Assisi will soon be gone, its cross and bells will remain in North Adams.

Following its removal from atop the church steeple early Monday, the cross will be donated to the North Adams Historical Society for preservation, the Diocese of Springfield confirmed on Monday.

The bells taken from the steeple will be kept by the local parish for potential reuse and bricks will be made available to parishioners at a later date.

"We had put in a request to keep the cross in one piece and put it in a safe place until decision could be made as to where it may go, seeing as North Adams is the 'Steeple City,' " said Justyna Carlson of the North Adams Historical Society.

The artifacts may be of some small consolation to the local Catholic community amid the grim demolition on the city's oldest remaining Roman Catholic Church.

St. Francis was opened in the 1860s, with a steeple stretching nearly 170 feet in the air and towering above the buildings near it. The church, once home to the city's largest parish, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to the records kept by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the roots of St. Francis can be traced to 1825, when the first Irish families began to settle in North Adams. They began practicing Catholicism here around 1845, but still only held Mass once every three months, according to the records. The land for St. Francis was purchased in 1864 and its cornerstone was laid in 1867.

The cross that adorned the steeple is not made of gold, as some thought; the old gold-colored, galvanized iron cross was replaced with a copper cross, according to a 1956 article in the North Adams Transcript.

Though a unique structure in the Northern Berkshires thanks to its size, age and integral role in the community, the church's historical significance may best be represented in the memories of its parishioners and their weddings, baptisms, first communions, and even funerals.

"St. Francis will live in my imagination, in my heart, for as long as I long as I'm around," said the Rev. Jerome Joseph Day, a Benedictine priest in Manchester, N.H., who was raised in North Adams and wrote a book on the church's history.

Day's Irish ancestors found a home in the church when they arrived here around the turn of the 20th century.

"St. Francis was nothing to me and my family except a blessing," he said.

Carlson was a parishioner of St. Francis and played the organ there.

"It's difficult for all of us," she said. "I remember my father's funeral; he taught at Drury High School, which was right next door at the time, and he died while he was still teaching [in the 1960s]."

The school allowed students the option of attending the former teacher's funeral at St. Francis.

"The great majority opted to come down. It was certainly a moving experience," she said. "It was just moving to have the whole church full ... I have personal memories that can't quite be replaced."

The Rev. William Cyr, priest of the city's last active Catholic church at St. Elizabeth's of Hungary, read a letter from the diocese during Mass this weekend explaining to parishioners the situation at St. Francis,

"Nobody's jumping for joy whether they were parishioners of St. Francis or one of the other churches," Cyr said. "They weren't happy about it, but they understood."

Cyr, a priest in North Adams for 11 years and Williamstown for 16 years before that, who received the call from a parishioner early Thursday morning reporting that bricks had fallen from St. Francis and onto the sidewalks. The Diocese of Springfield, quickly sent in engineers, who ultimately called for the demolition of the 19th century church.

At one point, the city was home to five Catholic churches that represented the city's diverse population. Two were known as Irish churches, two were French churches, and one was Italian. St. Francis was an Irish church, Carlson said.

Since then, the population of North Adams has dwindled to about 13,000 and the Catholic community has seen similar declines in numbers. Cyr oversaw three churches when he came to North Adams, but now only one remains.

"When this community had a population of about 26,000, these churches were filled every single Sunday," he said.

Mayor Richard Alcombright watched the cross come down in person Monday morning and saw, from his office window, the demolition continue throughout the day. He often attended the church as a student at St. Joseph's School, and the mayor said those he's spoken to in the last few days feel the same way as he does about the church's demolition — sad.

"That's just going to be a missing tooth in the smile of this community," Alcombright said.

Day said he wishes decisions made in the wake of the church's closure had been made differently.

"I think we're losing a tremendous artifact or architectural piece and I lament that," he said.

Mark Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese, said it recognizes the historical and cultural importance of the church in North Adams. The diocese actively attempted, for more than seven years, to repurpose the property, Dupont said, but it never happened.

"We certainly tried to find and provide resources to figure out how we could keep that up," Alcombright said. "At the end of the day, it seems that's all for naught."

Though the hastiness of an emergency demolition came as a shock, the final outcome did not.

"When the various offers were made for the St. Francis campus, and for one reason or another those offers fell through ... at that point people I believe began to realize it probably wasn't going to be saved as a church," Cyr said.

Carlson, who serves as chairman of the city's Historical Commission, said there was nothing the commission could do to save the church once it became a safety issue.

"It all happened so fast," she said.

In the end, part of what made St. Francis so spectacular may have also been its downfall.

"It's very difficult to have an adaptive reuse when it is so huge," Carlson said.

The church's absence from the lot will undoubtedly open up new opportunities for development there. The diocese had worked to sell St. Francis since 2009, and come close on several occasions, but it was never able to make a deal that was agreeable to all parties, Dupont said.

As Catholic churches throughout the region have consolidated in recent years, the diocese attempts to find a reuse for them, he said, including the former Notre Dame Church in North Adams, which was purchased by the city with grant money.

"If in fact the entire structure is, gone, it would certainly pave the way for anyone to come in and do anything with it," Alcombright said.

No matter what the future holds for that corner, many will remember it as the home of St. Francis.

"Things come and go," Day said, "yet they live on in our hearts and in our characters."

Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.


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