It was a big deal when the French-Canadian immigrants of New Bedford built a bigger St. Joseph’s Church across from Brooklawn Park in 1924. With the textile mills humming and the city near its high point in population with 120,000 residents, the city went from two French Catholic ethnic parishes to six in a little more than a decade.
Now, just short of 100 years later, all but St. Anthony’s have closed. St. Joseph’s (now called St. Joseph-St. Therese) and Our Lady of Fatima last weekend became the latest two of eight city churches that have closed in New Bedford over the past two decades.
One of those buildings, the 15,500-square foot St. Joseph-St. Therese’s, is a large stone-brick edifice that may well join four other massive former churches — St. John the Baptist, St. Kilian, St. Ann and Trinity Methodist — that have proved impossible to re-use once they shut their doors.
It’s not because the city hasn’t tried to find developers for the properties.
Redeveloping the brick and stone cathedral-like churches built in New Bedford in the early part of the 20th century has proved an intractable challenge for New Bedford. In 2013, the city sponsored a forum called Saving Sacred Spaces that invited experts from around the region to brainstorm on the issue. But little came from it. Ideas like churches sharing performing art spaces and worship services purposes didn’t seem to catch on for the biggest edifices.
“We’re not doing any specific planning like we did in the past,” said Anne Louro, the city’s preservation planner.
Unlike Protestant churches, which are governed by the parishes, Catholic churches are owned by the diocese, and their ultimate disposition must follow decisions made by the bishop and his advisers. There is a process for reverting a sacramental Catholic space back to secular use, and the preference even then is to use the building for respectful and religious-related purposes, if the structure remains standing.
There has been greater success for reincarnating the smaller worship centers in New Bedford.
The city and the Waterfront Historic Area League (WHALE), along with Your Theater, have spent half a decade coming up with a plan to refurbish the First Baptist Church into what will be Steeple Playhouse. Much of it has been financed by the city through the Community Preservation Act, and the restoration is nearing completion.
Smaller churches, like St. Hedwig’s, have found new uses. Catholic Social Services has reconfigured the former Polish church in the South End into a homeless shelter and training center. St. Casmir, a North End Polish church, found new life as the home of a Portuguese religious-based club. And the former St. James Episcopal Church (and later Holy Cross national church) in the Acushnet Heights area has become a metalsmithing studio for a group of artists.
But the big buildings have proven a tough sell.
St. John’s, the first Portuguese-ethnic church in North America, closed in 2012 and has sat empty for almost a decade; ditto for Centre Trinity Methodist, which closed in 2013, and St. Kilian’s, originally an Irish ethnic parish but later one that served Latino immigrants, which closed in 2015.
Louro said she has been working with Trinity Methodist (which still holds a mortgage on that property) on efforts to secure the building, which has been in decline since it closed. Local businessman Robert Xifaras has had a plan to make it into a Grecian marketplace and entertainment center since 2018 but nothing has developed. The building as recently as 2007 hosted former Gov. Deval Patrick at the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day address. It is an impressive structure, noteworthy for an architectural feature referred to as internal flying buttresses.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Fall River said that St Kilian’s has actually been sold to an outfit named CNK Development Properties.
CNK could not be reached for comment for this story, but in the cases where redevelopment of these cavernous churches does occur, it is most often to be demolished to make way for contemporary uses like convenience stores or gas stations.
The diocese this year has also sold for commercial redevelopment a historic school and former rectory for housing at St. Lawrence Martyr Church and the former St. Joseph-Therese School for the same purpose.
That’s what looked like what was going to happen to the former St. Ann’s Church on the South End peninsula. But the city ended up demolishing the structure for the police and fire department’s new public safety center, which opened a few months ago. Like St. Ann’s, St. Kilian’s sits on a busy corner of a commercial thoroughfare, Ashley Boulevard.
No community has been as discouraged by the closure of the big churches as the city’s Portuguese diaspora. The dwindling parish made a concerted effort with the Diocese of Fall River to keep the St. John the Baptist church open. Ideas such as using it as a Portuguese cultural center were later floated but nothing ever came of them. Some nearby development did occur, however, as Palace Pizza and More constructed a handsome restaurant across the street.
The empty churches are located throughout the city, from the North to South ends, and Louro said the city continues to hope.
“We’d be welcome to open a dialogue with the diocese,” she said.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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