Saturday, June 14

PITTSFIELD — Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Fenn Street, a national parish for persons of Italian descent, opened in 1903. But activity around the church lately has focused on the packing and sorting of items, because its days as a parish are dwindling to a precious few. Mount Carmel is one of the six Pittsfield churches that the Diocese of Springfield plans to close this summer as part of a reorganization plan announced in February.

"There's still some resentment and so forth, but by this time there's a sense of, I guess, resignation that has set in," said the Rev. Geoffrey Deeker referring to the mood of Mount Carmel's parishioners.

The first to close, All Souls, a mission of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, will celebrate its final Mass tomorrow, and the others — Holy Family, St. Mary the Morningstar, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Teresa — will officially close by July 6.

In February, local church officials compared the announcement of the closings to a "death." Deeker said the phrase has been overused since then, but that it still applies.

"This is a death," he said. "There's anger, shock. All the emotions."

In 2004, the Diocese of Springfield instituted a comprehensive review of its parishes in Western Massachusetts. Faced with a drop in parishioners and funding the buildings, the "pastoral planning" process resulted in a proposal that recommended closing six Pittsfield churches and integrating those parishes with the remaining four.

"To the best of my knowledge, we're still expecting the closings by the end of the month," said diocese spokesman Mark Dupont.

At Holy Family, the closing Mass is scheduled for June 29, but a final Mass will take place Aug. 15 in conjunction with a Roman Catholic Holy Day and a popular Polish feast day, according to Monsignor Michael Shershanovich. The final Mass will begin at 5:30 p.m., and Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell is scheduled to preside.

"Some of us are saying that, after that last Mass, we're all going to start crying," said Veronica Kelley, a parishioner at Holy Family for more than 60 years.

"I'm feeling sad," she said. "But I have many good memories."

Artifacts from all six churches, including statues and sacramental items, will be offered to Pittsfield's four remaining parishes due to their local significance, Dupont said. If those items don't find another home here, they will be offered to other churches in the diocese, which also includes Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties.

The diocese has been encouraging parishioners of the six closing churches to visit the four remaining parishes — Sacred Heart, St. Joseph's, St. Charles and St. Mark's — to decide where they will be the most comfortable worshiping, Dupont said.

Pastors of the closing churches will be reassigned throughout the diocese, but Deeker will remain in Pittsfield. He will become the fifth priest in the four-parish model that the diocese will adopt as part of the reorganization plan. Deeker, who turns 75 on Dec. 26, said he will be known as "Senior Priest in Service" and "Pastor Emeritus of Our Lady of Mount Carmel" where he has served the last 21 years.

He doesn't yet know the extent of his future role.

"It's kind of a mixed bag," said Deeker, who will move to St. Joseph's Rectory after Mount Carmel closes. "We're kind of developing this as we go along."

According to Dupont, the Congregation of the Sacred Stigmata, which supplies priests for Mount Carmel, had asked the diocese to allow Deeker to remain in Pittsfield. Deeker is also the vicar provincial and vocation director for the religious order, which is more commonly known as the Stigmatines.

The diocese agreed with the Stigmatines' request because it wants to make the transition between parishes as smooth as possible, Dupont added.

"It's a win-win for both of us," he said.

The Rev. Mark Mengel, St. Teresa's pastor, has been reassigned to Holy Name Church in Springfield. The new assignment for the Rev. Paul A. Bombardier, pastor of both St. Francis and St. Mary, is pending, Dupont said. Holy Family shares its pastor with St. Joseph's.

Several other changes are in the process of taking place.

The Berkshire Office for Religious Education will move from its current location at St. Mary to the Sacred Heart Church convent.

The City of Pittsfield, meanwhile, is seeking new locations for the longtime polling places at St. Teresa's (Ward 5A), and All Souls Mission (Ward 3B).

"Once we do find new sites, everyone registered to vote in those precincts will be notified of the new locations," City Clerk Jody L. Phillips said.

Pittsfield's Teen-Parent program, which is located at St. Teresa's, will be moving to the First Baptist Church on South Street, according to a person familiar with the program.

Dupont said that, to his knowledge, the diocese has not received any offers for any of the church property that will go on the market next month. However, he said prospective developers may often approach a municipality first if they are seeking zoning changes, special permits, or variances before contacting the diocese.

Department of Community Development Director Deanna L. Ruffer said the city has received inquiries about the church properties, and has forwarded them to the diocese's real estate broker. Ruffer declined to comment on the proposals that have been suggested.

Mount Carmel and St. Mary are two of the nine designated areas that the city of Pittsfield has proposed for inclusion in a "Smart Growth Overlay District," a zoning designation that encourages municipalities with downtown and urban neighborhoods to allow "by right," or without special permits, a mix of different commercial and residential uses at different densities.

Ruffer said only Mount Carmel and St. Mary were included in the overlay district because they are both located in urban neighborhoods. Although no specific proposals for either church have been suggested yet, Ruffer said the tools in the proposed ordinance will influence the kind of development that occurs at both properties.