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Group Intent On Saving Pittsfield Church Continues Developing Reuse Ideas

Jim Levulis
St. Mary the Morning Star Church on Tyler St. in Pittsfield, Mass. has been closed since 2008.

The community group intent on saving a shuttered church in Pittsfield continues to develop possible ideas for reusing the steeple.The Friends of St. Mary’s Ad Hoc Committee formed following word last year that a leading Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee planned to buy St. Mary the Morning Star, tear it down and build a drive-thru restaurant. Cafua Management, which owns all or parts of 300 Dunkin’ Donuts locations, pulled back on those plans after more than 1,500 people signed a petition opposing the move, garnering media coverage. With the future of the church in limbo, the committee held a panel discussion to reignite community action. Their guest was Bob Jaeger, the president of Partners for Sacred Places, which bills itself as the only national, non-sectarian nonprofit focused on preserving former places of worship. 

“It’s partly about architecture, it’s partly about culture, but it’s also about places that really can serve the arts and social services, strengthen neighborhoods and be nodes where people come together again, which is what churches did back in the old days and Middle Ages,” said Jaeger.

Jeager listed examples ranging from Kentucky to Buffalo where his organization has helped turn sacred places into performance spaces, catering halls and workspace for nonprofits. He says other projects or ideas include churches being turned into restaurants, condominiums and even an indoor botanical garden. The Friends of St. Mary’s architectural consultant is Tom Cracolici, a senior at Boston’s Wentworth Institute of Technology who is majoring in architecture with a concentration in adaptive reuse. Having grown up in Pittsfield, Cracolici’s idea converts St. Mary’s into a 200- to 300-seat concert hall reusing almost 200 acoustical tiles and many of the remaining pews.

“Mainly because of its situation on Tyler Street,” Cracolici said. “It’s right in between Berkshire Medical Center, which attracts a lot of full-time employees and then also the new up and coming William Stanley Business Park on the eastern side of Tyler St. So I saw St. Mary’s as right in the middle of those two and you’re going to have a lot of traffic in between there. I think that’s going to attract a lot of people. Then once they know about St. Mary’s and the concert hall, if it becomes that, it’s going to revamp Tyler St. and Pittsfield in general."

There are examples of similar reuse in the region: also once thought to be on the road to demolition, the Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs is a renovated 1871 church that now houses concerts and other performances and events. 

The nearly 75-year-old St. Mary’s closed in 2008 when the Catholic Diocese of Springfield closed five other parishes in Pittsfield alone because of declining membership. On the market since 2010, the 2.6-acre property that also houses a rectory and convent has cost the Pittsfield Catholic community $200,000 since shortly after its closure. Still under contract talks with the Diocese, Cafua said in September it was preparing a revised plan that maintains the church, while also offering to donate the church to the city. Mayor Dan Bianchi has been supportive of the community group’s efforts, but says Pittsfield can’t financially take on such a property.

“It will take ideas, it will take capital, it will take big hearts, but that’s not to say…buildings like this have been reused,” Bianchi said during a 2014 tour of the church. “But I think it’s going to require a collaboration between maybe a number of organizations to make it happen.”

Meanwhile, Cafua appealed the Pittsfield City Council’s 2013 denial of a special permit for a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru elsewhere in the city, on First and Fenn Streets. A decision is expected this summer. Bill Barry, president of Friends of St. Mary’s, says the next step involves getting together with the Diocese and the property’s realtor, Colebrook.

“I think we can achieve something good,” Barry said. “What that is? I don’t know. But just that we can all talk to each other and say here’s what we want to do. We want to preserve St. Mary’s and restore it. Whether we make a profit or not-for-profit, that’s fine. But, I would like to have better communication with the Diocese of Springfield and the realtor.”

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