Treasured painting endures for Worcester's French Catholics

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WORCESTER (AP) >> On Oct. 14, 1908, the original Notre Dame Church in Worcester was destroyed in a late-night fire that razed the entire block along Park Street, now Franklin Street, across from City Hall.

Priests rescued the sacred host from the flames — and also a painting of the Crucifixion that had hung in the church since its founding in 1869.

The painting of Christ on the Cross followed the French-Canadian Catholic congregation down the street to another church in Salem Square, and then, in 1929, to the basilica-like Notre Dame des Canadiens Church that was raised on the site.

There, in the mother church of Worcester's French-Canadian Catholic community, amid the flickering light of votive candles, the painting hung for decades above the high altar and then in a shrine until the church was closed in 2007.

Today, the former Notre Dame des Canadiens stands shuttered, as the multimillion-dollar CitySquare project rises around it in the heart of downtown.

In the meantime, the painting of the Crucifixion hangs a mile away up Grafton Hill, in the sacristy of St. Joseph's Church, the city's surviving French-Canadian Catholic landmark, where today the children of Caribbean immigrants serve Mass said in French for Worcester's Haitians — and where the artwork is revered as a relic of a faith that has survived amid great change.

"This, for us, as French Canadians in Worcester, is our most treasured possession," said Rev. Steven M. LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish at St. Joseph's Church, showing a visitor the painting of Christ crucified at Calvary, his mother Mary and devoted followers Saints John and Mary Magdalene at his feet.

Parishioner John Paul Bellerose of Worcester oversees the altar servers who gather under the painting in the sacristy to don cassocks and surplices and make preparations for Mass. He said the artwork is a central part of the parish history he makes sure all new altar servers — a diverse group whose families hail from Haiti, Africa and Brazil — are taught.

"To us, it has special meaning," Bellerose said. "That painting has been through everything that parish community has. Through the catastrophes, the tragedies, the grandeur, through fires, it's followed that community.

"Church buildings have come and gone — some have burnt down, some were sold, some were closed, new ones were built. But that painting is the one thing that has followed that community, it's paralleled them, throughout their entire history in Worcester."

Worcester once was called the city of churches, home to more than 100 at the turn of the 20th century. A bird's-eye view of downtown reveals a landscape dotted with spires.

The tale told by some of these landmark church buildings is one of a city in transition — a story of life, death and rebirth written in stone and mortar.

At St. Peter's Church in Main South, a parish once so Irish Catholic that shamrocks are carved into the rectory shutters, the crowd was standing room only for last week's 10 a.m. Palm Sunday Mass — in Spanish. At the parish's St. Andrew the Apostle Mission church, monthly Masses now are offered for Kenyan worshippers in Swahili.

The historic former Union Congregational Church on Chestnut Street reopened this month under new ownership. Built at the end of the 19th century, in an age when Yankee Worcester had as many as seven Congregational churches, the Victorian Gothic Revival edifice once dubbed the city's "Protestant cathedral" had been vacant since 2013 when an Assemblies of God congregation abandoned its attempt to establish a "New England Dream Center" there.

The local congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana bought the 34,500-square-foot building for $1.75 million, and having celebrated its first services there in March, plans a grand opening May 15 to be attended by the international head of their denomination and guests from around the world.

A more doubtful future is faced by the historic mother church of the Italian-American Catholic community in Worcester. Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Mulberry Street, hard by Interstate 290, is crumbling after more than a half-century's exposure to the rumble and exhaust of highway traffic, and requires millions of dollars in structural repairs that the pastor, Monsignor F. Stephen Pedone, says the parish simply can't afford. He proposes closing the Mount Carmel church building and creating a merged parish that would worship at Our Lady of Loreto Church on Massasoit Road. Some longtime Mount Carmel parishioners are balking. A parish meeting is scheduled April 10.

Downtown, the former Notre Dame des Canadiens Church sits vacant in the middle of the $565-million CitySquare development that city officials hope will revitalize the urban center through an influx of 2 million square feet of commercial, retail, medical, residential and hotel space.

The Worcester Diocese sold the Notre Dame building to an arm of the Hanover Insurance Group that is developing CitySquare for $875,000 in 2010. CitySquare continues apace, with foundation work underway on new apartments, construction due to begin in June on a new hotel, and landscaping about to start above the new underground parking garage. But what is to be done with a cathedral-size church occupying a footprint of 16,000 square feet remains unclear.

"Presently, we have no viable plans," said Donald W. Birch, executive vice president of Leggat McCall Properties, the Boston firm overseeing the development. Birch led a tour of the vacant church building one afternoon last week.

He said conversations had been held with three different hotel developers, but each had concluded that converting the building to hotel use was not financially viable.

He said several proposals also have been considered for converting the building into a performing arts center, but none of these has been deemed workable financially, either. He said one of these plans, "a grand solution" to convert the church building to a 500-seat theater, would have cost more than the $31 million spent to renovate the Hanover Theatre in 2008.

Simply to restore the church to a state in which it could be considered for reuse would be an expensive proposition, he said, since the building would need to be brought up to code structurally while requiring entirely new mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems and utilities. He estimated that work alone could run more than $8 million.

"It's wait and see," Birch said. "We continue to keep our options open. The challenge is trying to find that alternative use that fits within the constraints of the geometry. The biggest challenge here is the size."

On a tour of the vacant church building, a visitor encountered a vast and empty interior, with soaring ceilings and dome. Most of the stained glass windows had been removed but some remained, as did a non-working organ in the loft. A plaster Station of the Cross, depicting Jesus fallen, lay on the floor, by a scattering of rubble. Once-graceful arches, now peeling, lent to a sense of being in a large catacomb.

When Notre Dame des Canadiens closed, the altar, pulpit and some of the artwork went to the chapel of the mausoleum at Notre Dame Cemetery in Worcester, while stained glass windows that were removed were placed in storage in a warehouse in Connecticut, said Rev. LaBaire, the pastor at St. Joseph's, who was raised in the Notre Dame parish and was an altar boy there.

Meantime, the painting of the Crucifixion — along with the legacy of Worcester's French-Canadian Catholic parishes — went to St. Joseph's, on Hamilton Street.

That St. Joseph's is here today is noteworthy in itself, because the church went through a near-death experience of its own. In 1992, Bishop Timothy J. Harrington ordered that the church some have called the most beautiful in the city be closed and the parish merged. Parishioners staged an occupation of the church building that lasted more than a year and made national headlines. Police were called in to evict the occupiers, and the church was boarded up and locked. The laity appealed to the Vatican, held nightly rosary vigils, and raised more than $600,000 toward church repairs. When a new bishop, Daniel P. Reilly, arrived in Worcester in 1995 he allowed the church to reopen.

In the years to come, Notre Dame des Canadiens would be closed, as would another grand old French-Canadian Catholic Church, Holy Name of Jesus on Illinois Street. The parishes merged into Holy Family Parish at St. Joseph's Church. "This one, ironically, is the one that survived," Rev. LaBaire said.

He said Grafton Hill was home to 6,000 French-Canadian families in the 1920s, and instruction in French continued until 1970 at the St. Joseph's school, where the old doorways for boys and girls still read "garcons" and "filles." Today the most well-attended service at the church is the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass in Portuguese for a large Brazilian congregation. The Mass in French, discontinued in the 1980s, has returned on Sundays at 12:30 p.m. for the Haitian community.

"That's the story of every city," said Rev. LaBaire, who learned the French he uses at 12:30 Mass from his French-Canadian immigrant grandparents. "Every city is a saga of changing and shifting demographics.

"It's important to remember, the church is the people, not the building."

The faith endures, he said, as does the painting of Christ by an unknown artist of the Italian school that survived all three Notre Dame churches and today finds itself at St. Joseph's.

A 19th-century foundress of the Little Franciscans of Mary, Mother Marie Louise Rondeau, prayed in front of the painting, Rev. LaBaire said. Generations have done so since.

Consider all the prayers that have been offered in front of this piece of sacred art over nearly 150 years, Bellerose said. "It's awe inspiring." he said.

Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester), http://www.telegram.com


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